Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’: An Inquisitive Study of Eroticism Disguised as a Victorian Love Story


By Sven Mikulec


The film is inspired by Gothic Romantic writing, partially takes place in the delicate and exotic bush, which can be very claustrophobic and frightening. It touches on the forced assimilation of the Maori people, and tries to explore the relationship between fetishism and love. ‘The Piano Lesson’ is very sophisticated, easily the most adult or complex material I’ve attempted. It’s the first film I’ve written that has a proper story, and it was a big struggle for me to write. It meant I had to admit the power of narrative. And there is definitely room to play, visually—in fact, there’s a big call for it. —Jane Campion

It took three feature films for New Zealand-born filmmaker Jane Campion to spread her voice all across the world, but when it happened in 1993 with The Piano premiering at Cannes, the world fell on its knees. Campion possessed a strong, original, inspiring voice full of determination, curiosity and vigor. In a world dominated by men, in a line of business where women have been ignored for decades, Campion emerged as a role model, as a full-blooded author with ideas that are capable of touching the hearts of millions. The Piano, a story of a mute woman from Scotland arriving at New Zealand for a fixed marriage to a man she never met and she would probably never love, is an erotic, psychologically explorative odyssey chock-full of emotion. How does a woman, who has been incapable of speaking for most of her life, express her deepest desires? It was a gamble to put that kind of a burden on a single actress, but Holly Hunter is brilliant here. Silent, mysterious but full of intense emotion, she is an epitome of a true Victorian woman. The thing about Victorian women, and the Victorian society in general, is that they had marvelous ways of talking about sex without openly mentioning any part of it. There were subtle but clear ways of seducing: the eyes and the hands were all that mattered in the process, as Charlotte Brontë elaborately showed in Jane Eyre, a classic piece of Victorian literature.

The situation is the same in Campion’s New Zealand: Ada, as the protagonist is called, enters a stormy, very tense relationship with an ex whaler, a loner played by Harvey Keitel, who makes the seduction of Ada his ultimate priority. It’s wonderful to see how much can actually be said when your main character is unable to speak, if we ignore some instances of much welcome voice-over. Jane Campion created a strange film. An unorthodox love story with unpredictable plot and surprisingly well-developed characters. An inquisitive study of eroticism. A story of how human beings are inclined to isolate themselves and live their lives as islands, cut off, shut in their four walls, too afraid to reach out and risk actually feeling something. With The Piano, Jane Campion made a name of herself, but even more importantly, immeasurably helped promote gender equality in an industry that is still struggling to open its gates to women filmmakers, no matter how brilliant they might be.

Screenwriter must-read: Jane Campion’s screenplay for The Piano [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Producer Jan Chapman recalls the rocky road to Oscar and Palme d’Or glory for Jane Campion’s Brontë-esque erotic drama The Piano, set in 1850s New Zealand. —Memories of making The Piano; 25 years of Jane Campion’s wild, windswept masterpiece


“Campion‘s powerful portrayal of the human spirit, and her profound character-driven nar-ratives are intriguing ruminations on societal and gender issues, while being gripping cine-matic feats. Her protagonists are often stub-born pioneers with unique artistic visions such as the fearless pianist played by Holly Hunter in The Piano, writer Janet Frame in An Angle at My Table and poet John Keats in Campion‘s recent Bright Star. Examining social convention through visionary protagonists and powerful emotional insights, Campion’s work has been widely lauded, winning the Palme d’Or (1993), the Silver Lion (1990) and an Academy Award (1994). Every year a selection of Berlinale Talents Talks is recorded and published online in full length. Browse previous editions of Berlinale Talents and enjoy inspiring moments with great filmmakers.” —In the Limelight: Jane Campion

“Before Jane Campion earned international acclaim for the low-budget feature Sweetie (1989), she already revealed a great deal of promise with three short films that she made while a student at the Australian Film and Television School: Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1983-4) and A Girl’s Own Story (1983-4). The shorts were screened at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival together with her freshly completed television film Two Friends (1986), and Peel ultimately won the Palme d’Or for best short film, a remarkable achievement for a first-time competitor. The three shorts subsequently played at other film festivals around the world, often distributed as a package. Taken together, they reveal a striking visual sense and a gift for observing the tricky world of human relationships through memorably offbeat characters.” —Jane Campion Shorts

“One of the great joys of being a film fan in the internet age is finding and seeing work that otherwise wouldn’t be easily accessible. Case in point, Jane Campion’s 1982 short film Peel—which won the New Zealand-born filmmaker the Short Film Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, making her the first woman to have ever done so—has found its way online.” —Cain Rodriguez


The full title of Peel is actually An Exercise in Discipline: Peel. The ten-minute film depicts a father’s bid to enforce discipline on his son by stopping the car to have him pick up pieces of orange peel that he tossed out the window, and how this conflict is complicated by shifting alliances amongst the three family members in the car. Appropriately, a title card identifies the three characters by their dual roles: Brother/Father, Sister/Aunt, and Son/Nephew. During a 1985 interview in the Sydney newspaper National Times, Campion characterized the film as a “family portrait” inspired by the Pye family in real life: “Katie Pye […] and her family were quite angry with each other at the time. But they were honest because when they read the script I’d written about them they laughed and said, ‘Yes, that’s us.’ Not many people would admit that.”Incidentally, Ulla Ryghe, the producer, served as Ingmar Bergman’s chief film editor during the 1960s.

A Girl’s Own Story is the most ambitious and emotionally complex of Campion’s short films. Set in the early Sixties, it focuses on Pam, a young adolescent who is caught in the middle of Beatlemania, sexual yearning, and a tense family life. The camerawork often suggests her subjective experience of the world; in particular, one sequence where she floats up the stairs recalls German Expressionist cinema or possibly experimental cinema such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). The film is also noteworthy for the frankness with which it handles the emotional consequences of molestation and incest. Already, we can see how Jane Campion’s directorial vision will develop into the richly eccentric and disturbing worlds of Sweetie (1989), An Angel at My Table (1990), and The Piano (1993).


Co-written and co-directed by Campion’s boyfriend Gerald Lee, Passionless Moments consists of ten vignettes, accompanied by a pompous BBC-style narrator, in which various characters have individual moments of strange epiphany (or non-epiphany) in their mundane lives. Some critics have remarked on the influence of David Lynch on Campion’s early work—an influence which she openly acknowledges—and it’s especially evident here. The film won an award for Best Experimental Film at the 1984 Australian Film Awards.


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