The Piano (1993) directed by Jane Campion, is a tragic love story. A mute woman, Ada (Holly Hunter) along with her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), and her prized piano, are sent to 1850s New Zealand for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner, Alisdair (Sam Neill) and she’s soon lusted after by a local worker on the plantation, George Baines (Harvey Keitel).
These characters are all making serious sacrifices throughout the film and it’s messy love triangle.
- I believe Ada is making the largest sacrifice. She has traveled far away from the comfort of her home to be married off by her father to a man whom she does not know. Upon arrival, she is forced to leave her piano on a washed up beach. Later on, she is forced by Alisdair to give her piano to a man she does not know, Baines. As her relationship with Baines grows, Ada is forced to sacrifice her relationship with Flora. She must consistently lie and hide things from Flora. In the end Ada physically must sacrifice her pinky finger.
- Alisdair’s sacrifice has much to do with his wife and the respect from his people. He slowly loses control of Ada, whom he never had any sexual control over in the first place. As he loses control of Ada, the native people respect him less and less, as Baines is one of their own.
- Baines is sacrificing the working relationship that he has with Alisdair. He risks nearly everything to spend time with Ada, luring her slowly to him.
These characters are all shape-shifters in one way or another. In the Hero’s Journey there is usually one character that could be classified as a shapeshifter. The Shapeshifter archetype is hard to describe by its very nature but in essence it acts to bring uncertainty and tension into a story, by changing appearance, mood, or behavior. In a romance, the hero and heroine can both be shapeshifters, adapting as external and internal demands require. In The Piano all three in the love triangle shapeshift.
- Ada is the strongest shapeshifter. She is Alisdair’s wife one moment and Baines lover the next. Her mask lowers in the presence of Baines, and it promptly is replaced the moment that her and Baines are no longer in privacy.
- Baines shift is rather simple. He begins as a cold, secluded man and as he gets to know Ada he is shifted into a warmer heart.
- Alisdair is the strong father figure of the people. He is the one whom has control and guarantees the safety of everyone. As the plot thickens, Alisdair’s control turns into a mask. He truly is driven mad by the circumstances and has lost his mind.
The plot in The Piano is completely reliant upon it’s Mise-en-Scene. The story is incited by the journey of a civilized woman, and her daughter to the uncivilized forest on an island. The image of well dressed women hiking through the dirty grimy woods is visually alluring due to it’s rarity. The piano adds another layer to this juxtaposition of civilization. It is a symbol of the elite of society; it is left to wither away on a beach and eventually thrown into the ocean.
Ada floats through an abyss.
I believe the strongest moment visually in the film is in one of the final sequences. Ada, Baines and Flora are on the boat leaving the island, Ada decides that the piano should be thrown overboard. As the piano sinks, ropes quickly fly out of the boat. Ada places her foot just so to be caught up in the rope and dragged down by her piano.
This single image encapsulates Ada’s entire journey. She is bound by things that she cannot control. The piano dragging her under the water is the very same piano that drug her relationship with first Alisdair down, and later Baines. But this time she’s chosen to sink. “I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep.”