Bright, Burning Desire: The Piano in Frame

A scene from The Piano

Ihave a habit of recalling certain images at random times, when a clear reason for the recollection escapes me. The image might be a painting, a photograph, or a perfect memory. When the image surfaces, it’s more than a configuration of shapes and colors, or bewitchingly placed brushstrokes. The image is an entire story told in a single frame: the moment, the before, the after, the story beneath longing to be told. To repeatedly recall an image lends the story a sort of, what the writer Sarah Manguso might call, ongoingness. An image created in the past can live on in the present, and whisper more of its story with each resurfacing.

One of the images I return to is a frame that appears early in Jane Campion’s film The Piano. The story begins with a woman’s voice, not her “speaking voice” but her “mind’s voice.” She travels across a riotous sea to a land she does not know to join her husband, whom she has never met. When the boat is close to the shore, seamen carry the woman across the water on their shoulders as though she is being offered as a sacrifice. The woman, wearing a black bonnet and a billowing black Victorian dress. Is she mourning what she has left or what awaits her?

Soon, the frame appears that has etched itself in my mind, a frame of contrasts, like a painting steeped in chiaroscuro come to life. A light emerges from the murky tones of a barren beach at night. In the foreground, Ada (Holly Hunter) stands in profile, her bonnet now removed, her dress blooming outward from her waist. Her gaze is turned to her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), whose small head peeks out from under a hooped petticoat atop a shallow nest of sand. The hem of the petticoat is held down by carefully placed stones, and a light emanates from within. Using what they can from this new environment, they have created a tiny world, an intimate sanctuary that foreshadows Ada’s yearning. It is a frame that perfectly captures the bright, inextinguishable desire to live passionately—both sexually and creatively—even in the most challenging landscape.

Perhaps it is the lingering confrontation between desire and deterrent that compels me to return to this image from The Piano so often. To put the frame in context: Ada has been sent from Scotland to New Zealand to marry a European settler called Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Her identity has been stamped and narrowly defined, denying any space she can claim for herself. No one is there to meet Ada when she arrives in her designated home. She has declined an offer to accompany the seamen to Nelson, where she could shelter overnight, choosing to remain at the landing site instead. Her belongings (including her beloved piano) are strewn across the sand—the threads of personhood and property entwined. But here, on the beach, Ada and Flora don’t appear to be waiting so much as creating something new. Looking at this frame now, as a global pandemic distorts the hours that fill our days, I see a kind of hope and perseverance in how the characters interact with time.

Two hooped skirts feature in this frame: one worn and one removed. Ada wears a hooped skirt—essentially a fabric-draped cage—under her black dress, her figure informed by its curves and the corset required of a woman in the Victorian era. The styling establishes our place in time and the restrictions Victorian society would have placed on Ada, her body squeezed by its specifications. Her position is telling too. She stands in silhouette, facing the light emanating from her daughter’s refuge. Her eyes fixed, Ada seems to say (in her silent language) that her wild heart beats beyond the confines of her stature. 

More prominently featured is the skirt that surrounds Flora, centered and glowing in the darkness, demanding our attention. The brightness itself feels like a rupture in a generational continuum stained by gendered oppression. Flora’s head breaches the garment—signaling the power of motherhood and the idea that we might be reborn on our own terms. The skirt has been fashioned into a safe haven, which the viewer cannot see inside. It’s a nod to interiority, particularly to Ada’s rich, burning interior life as a woman who has chosen to stop speaking at six years of age—not much younger than Flora is when we meet her. But it is also a nod to how we might remake the structures we live in, to transfigure norms that feel immutable.

This includes the sexual norms imposed during Ada’s time, norms uncomfortably recognizable to any modern woman who dares to insist on her own pleasure, and has been labelled a slut or whore for doing so. The undergarment as an object set free from the body hints at Ada’s own undressing, her casting off of rules, and her refusal to feel shame. Although her relationship with Baines (Harvey Keitel)—a European man who lives with the native Māori people—begins with a bargain wherein she trades (increasingly sexually-charged) piano lessons to have her piano returned to her, Ada slowly embraces her transgressive desire. She invites Baines under her skirt in a rare example of cinema depicting a woman receiving oral sex—inverting the hierarchy of sexual pleasure. Ada may be expected to abide by norms, but she brazenly returns to Baines, again and again, defying her husband’s attempts to keep her locked away. Her rendezvous with Baines marry danger and desire—an entanglement that fits within Campion’s oeuvre in its subversiveness—and challenge our notions of sex and love as they are prescribed to us. 

We tend to frame desire in a sexual context and our creative desires in an ethereal context, but Ada’s struggle lies in transmuting both into a tactile world she is barred from. We hear only brief, bookended snippets of her internal voice because her words have been stripped of power. In turn, her desires are given weight through physicality, through the piano keys she touches, and how she uses her body with the man she chooses to sleep with. Her desires are as real to her as the mud beneath her feet, and the piano is an extension of her formidable will. We might then see the underskirt as a place that Stewart believes he can conquer, reflecting the audacity of the colonizer as much 19th century sexism (and sexism as it continues today). But desire and love (or desire dressed up as love) cannot come about by force. Try as he might, Stewart will fail to “tame” his wife. The removal of the skirt might also be read as a foreshadowing of Stewart’s violent act: the axing of Ada’s index finger. When the strength of her will becomes apparent to Stewart, he can only think to respond with physical violence, to quell what he fears. 

There is a “dark talent” at work in this frame—to borrow the phrase Ada’s father uses to describe her resolve. As a young woman, my own pleasure was never in focus. No one ever spoke to me about sex or desire. I was expected to just know. Know how to use my body. Know how to please a man when I reached an age deemed acceptable by society, as long as it was kept hidden. I was expected to know how to smile and say yes, it was great for me too. Know when to moan, and when to be quiet and take it like a girl. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted, or that it was okay to want. Instead of allowing myself to desire, I lived as an object of desire. By extension, my creative desires smoldered in the background of my everyday life. But I always burned for more, and it took years before I learned to claim space for those desires. What was I waiting for?

As I write this essay, my work email notifications ping and smears of jam dry on dishes in the kitchen sink. It’s likely that I will piece much of this together over the coming days, making notes on my phone as it progresses. The framework of the life I live—as a woman, as someone who does not have the time or resources to attend writing retreats, as an educator still paying off student loans—means that I’ve had to salvage small pockets of time and forgive myself for the hours I was unable to repurpose. I was embarrassed to admit how long it took to break free of the guilt I inherited through systems designed to keep me in my place, to acknowledge my desires as worthy, until I met others who spoke (or wrote) openly about similar experiences. What I see in The Piano is a rejection of the guilt we’ve been born into, a guilt that permeates the gloom surrounding Ada and Flora on the beach. I see a reimagining of the architecture that diminishes desire. Just as Ada and Flora have marked their territory, and created a “home” sign language specific to them, Campion has carved out a space for films concerned with another kind of language.

There’s a Gothic sensibility to Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography, a dream world that hinges on a brutal reality. The framing of Ada on Flora waiting on the beach holds these dualities in focus. Though space exists between them, their gazes create a tethering. Campion has described the relationship between the two as a “conspiracy of femininity.” The sea roils in the distance, marking the breadth between the worlds they straddle: The land they knew versus the land they’ve come to, but also colonialism (as sexual and creative oppression) versus the ecstasy of defiance. If it’s possible for a still image to evoke sound, the contrasts found in this frame make a convincing case. We might hear the whoosh of water lapping at the shore, and echoes of Kate Chopin’s protagonist in The Awakening reside beneath the waves. Yet, a deeper, latent silence persists in its own strange power, particularly in light of the Thomas Hood poem Ada recites at the film’s conclusion: “There is a silence where hath been no sound, / There is a silence where no sound may be, / In the cold grave—under the deep deep sea.”

The ocean calls to the seductive guise of tranquility, while bodies disrupt the sublime beyond the margins of “polite society”—or a masculine idea of what the sublime encompasess. And while this portrait of contrasts elicits a rebellious hope in its staging, the flame burning beneath the tented-skirt makes clear the risks involved. (In the next scene, Flora asks: “Will it catch fire?”) There is little difference in what someone living in Ada’s time risks to live authentically when held up to the risk that a woman—or a person from a marginalized community—might risk today. Threats of violence, ostracization, or economic disaster endure. I might find a few early morning hours to pursue my passions, but there is a limit to my efforts if I am to survive. Perhaps this is another reason why this frame from The Piano resonates: the intimacy between this mother and daughter resides in a world where these risks feel a little less menacing, maybe even surmountable, if only in this one moment.