Pianos, power and pain

Pianos, power and pain

As the Festival de Cannes has crowned the third woman in history to win the Palme d'Or, Annabel Bai Jackson looks back on the key instrument in Jane Campion's award-winning The Piano. 

The opening of Denis Dercourt’s 2006 film The Page Turner sees a young girl – hair cinched back into a ponytail, posture like a marble column – sat playing a piece at the piano, a rehearsal for an audition later that morning. Intercut with her meticulous practice are shots of her father, a butcher, wielding a colossal cleaver to prepare for the day ahead: he slashes huge chunks of meat off the bone, lacerates ribs into segments, and hangs up new slabs on wire. The juxtaposition of these two ‘preparations’ is startling, at first seemingly arbitrary. But as the film’s thriller conceit plays out – and the girl takes revenge on the judge who rejected her audition – it all falls into place: for Dercourt, playing the piano is motivated by the same obsession, the same ruthlessness, as violence.

Dercourt’s film is now largely forgotten, left to freely stream in the YouTube archives. But it carries weight as a useful slice of cultural history when read alongside a film with far greater staying power. Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, is driven by the same vision of the piano – an instrument so associated with ballads and lullabies, pacifying rhythms and ABCs – as a locus of violent, erotic power. Set in 19th-century New Zealand, the film is traditionally read as a masterpiece of feminist period filmmaking, with a narrative that ticks the boxes of a largely second-wave creed: a woman refuses to sacrifice her artistic practice on the altar of systemic norms; female eros rages against the straitjacket of a sterile, arranged marriage. And beyond the politics of the film itself, it was ground-breaking in bagging Campion the Palme d’Or in Cannes and a Best Director nomination at the Oscars – making her the first woman to achieve both feats.

Recently, the film’s robust feminist credentials have come under a revisionist eye. Campion’s notion of transgressive female sexuality manifests in the affair between Ada (Holly Hunter), an electively mute pianist, and her neighbour George Baines (Harvey Keitel) – a relationship that originates in erotic duress. After Ada’s cherished piano becomes Baines’ property, he allows her to play it on the condition that she grant him one sexual favour for every black key. This set-up for a romance film, guided by force and coercive play, not only invites a reconsideration of The Piano’s sexual politics, but also leads us to ask: why is the piano such a focal point for a cinema of cruelty? And in what ways are Dercourt, Campion, and other filmmakers in league in using the instrument to eke out brutal, libidinous desires onscreen?

It’s easy to fall into old axioms when answering this question: there’s no beauty without pain, one must suffer for one’s art. Indeed, for Ada, her piano practice is scrupulous, non-negotiable; the connective tissue between piano and pianist is so total that separation is a form of death. In a 2013 interview, Campion expressed regret that she didn’t end the film with Ada and her piano being destroyed together, a move which would have fully consummated this neurotic human-object relationship – the most critical one in the entire film. But it’s perhaps more accurate to zone in on the way the piano, as an object, gives voice to what’s repressed in the film, or rather, on the shores of New Zealand’s mud-spattered frontier. This is most apparent in the piano’s function as a prosthesis: if Ada is mute, the piano is her substitute voice, a metonymic form of communication. But in the agreement between Ada and Baines, the piano is involved in violence as coercion, a bizarre striptease in which the instrument acts as both bargaining chip and aphrodisiac. Baines touches Ada while Ada touches the piano – now the synapse along which illicit desire shudders.

With its coffin-like exterior and sheer heft, the piano – as an aesthetic shorthand for repressed feeling – is these films’ elephant in the room. This pattern plays out across genres: familiar motifs, like garrotting by piano wire, grand pianos descending onto passers-by, and fingers slammed in the fallboard, see the relationship between pianos and pain extend from the most slapstick of scenarios to deadly serious drama. It spans 2013’s gleefully pulpy Grand Piano, a Damien Chazelle-penned thriller in which a pianist must play a note-perfect performance or else be shot dead; to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s eviscerating take on the middle class in crisis from 2008 in Tokyo Sonata, in which a child prodigy secretly learns to play the piano against their parents’ wishes. When the father finds out, a violent scuffle ensues which ends with the child crashing down a flight of stairs, concussed. The piano, here a symbol for rebellion that fatally imperils the nuclear family, lights the match on a bonfire of domestic agony – allowing the instrument to not only speak to the private, individualised desires of the cinematic subjects, but creating modes of social critique too.

This symbolism is so striking because of the disorder of affective eruption, at odds with the piano’s typical association with control and technical brilliance. When we imagine repressed emotions rearing their heads, they come to us in the form of a mistake, a fouling: think Freudian slips and botched-up dreams. That the piano is so deeply connected to ideas of excellence – and so deeply averse to ideas of error – is what makes its presence as a stand-in for inhibited desire so fascinating. If emotion, desire, and violence operate on one side of the coin, and mastery, control, and prowess on the other, the piano in contemporary cinema concretises these competing urges with a melodic flourish.

No film plays out this doubleness quite like Michael Haneke’s 2001 film The Piano Teacher. In the film, the complex structure of teacherly discipline fuses the glacial piano teacher Erika (Isabelle Huppert) and her student Walter (Benoît Magimel) into a sado-masochistic bond, with the piano as its erotic cynosure. Haneke creates a disturbing aesthetic correlation across two merciless long takes, with Erika’s face in unsparing close-up: first, when Walter auditions, and his piano  playing can be heard offscreen; and second, when Walter violently assaults Erika, and the offscreen sound consists of his haunting, fragmented justifications for doing so. Here, both virtuosic craftsmanship and desire for absolute sexual power have the same gravitational impact on the camera: in Haneke’s aesthetic mode, the two sides of the coin become remarkably alike.

Looking back on the past 30 years since The Piano was released, the film now marks a distinctive championing of realism in period filmmaking – one which is gradually losing favour to a contemporary style driven by absurdism and whimsy. It’s hard to imagine a period film with such sincere cinematic grammar feeling fresh or invigorating in the era of The Favourite or 2020’s Emma . But this sincerity, and Campion’s willingness to invest in such an intricate relationship between a human and an instrument, gives The Piano a gravitas – one that thrusts its characters into positions where they can finally face the music.
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