A piano on the beach in New Zealand, between wild waves and rugged cliffs, the image has lost none of its power. The piano player, a petite, mute woman, is carried ashore by the Maori before she spends the night with her little daughter in the tent poles of her hoop skirt on the beach.
When Jane Campion’s melodrama “The Piano” was shown in Cannes in 1993 – and won the Palme d’Or as the first production by a woman – there was talk of a miracle. About the miracle of a film that exploded the history genre as well as the traditional idea of ”women’s films” and the so-called female gaze.
The then 39-year-old New Zealand filmmaker, who previously made a name for herself with An Angel at My Table and her feature film debut Sweetie, catapulted her audience abruptly into the heart of the darkness that has shaped gender relations for centuries.
The story of Ada, who is married from Scotland to the emigrant Stewart (Sam Neill) and recaptures her beloved piano, which was sold to his friend Baines (Harvey Keitel), through a love service deal with Baines, lives from violence and tenderness. About the poetry of a camera that is as hovering as it is passionately fragmenting (Stewart Dryburgh), about the choreography of the gaze and the untameability of the rainforest with its intertwined lianas, veils of haze and incidences of sunlight, for which the term “soul landscape” would be a trivializing understatement.
The fragile dignity alone with which Ada wades through the mud, complete with a hat and a crinoline dress, becomes a symbol of the tension between nature and culture, Eros and puritanism.
And how does the love and jealousy drama about two men and a woman abroad, about Holly Hunter as Ada, with large, often angry eyes on her pale face, work today, beautifully restored in 4K? This is what silent movie stars look like. Perhaps Campion’s visual power is now even more effective now that the art of film is in danger of losing its appeal and is migrating from the cinema to smaller end devices.
Especially since the director explores seeing itself, the captivating as well as the liberating gaze: from Stewart’s camera eye when arranging the wedding photo to Ada peeping out between her fingers, to Baines’ tentative approach to the figure of the piano player to the peek through the gaps in the wooden wall to the Ada and Baines lovemaking.
It is no coincidence that film is set in 1850, the year of the invention of photography, which preceded the moving image. The small community of colonialists performs the fairy tale of King Bluebeard as a shadow play at Christmas; when the woman killer strikes, the Maori storm the stage. They think what they see is real: cinema also looks back on its own beginnings and on the violence that is inherent in it.
The discovery of sex in the Victorian era, the self-rescue of a heroine who overcomes the colonization of her body, even if she suffers severe injuries – this story hasn’t come to an end until today. Sensitization, mindfulness, other gender and body images: Jane Campion bases all of this on a myth in which a woman radically says I, even though she hardly has a chance. And who at the same time seeks closeness to others, she explores like a distant continent.
Campion proved that she has remained a pioneer with “The Power of the Dog”, in which she gets to the bottom of male desire, adds the macho genre of the western to her ancestral gallery of the female and discovers gender-fluid identities in it. Even in “The Piano” the men are not dumb criminals, but complicated, contradictory, and also lovable characters. The film won three Oscars, for screenplay, for Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin as Ada’s daughter. Campion has now received the director’s Oscar for “The Power of the Dog”.
Even then, almost 30 years ago, Jane Campion would have earned the Oscar for best film. Despite Michael Nyman’s pleasing piano music (composed especially for Holly Hunter’s little hands) and despite the slightly sweet happy ending.