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  • Inhuman Love: Jane Campion’s The Piano
  • Samir Dayal

Introduction: What Does the Woman Want?

The release of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) was almost an epochal event. It arrived to mark the zenith of a phase of extraordinary creativity in Australian cinema in the 1970s and 1980s with films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Lighthorsemen, Breaker Morant, and Gallipoli. In the following decade, close on the heels of Strictly Ballroom, Romper Stomper, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Campion’s film won the Palm D’Or at Cannes and three Academy Awards (see Orr 151, Coombs and Gemmell, “Preface” vii). Highly successful at the box office, the film elicited praise and stirred much passionate debate among critics and ordinary filmgoers. Neither were audiences oblivious to its sheer ambition in cinematic technique.1 That ambition foregrounds itself here in virtuoso camera movement, as when the camera seems to enter a character’s pocket, and there in an homage to a grand auteur, as when a close-up of Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter’s) hair tied in a tight spiral knot, in evoking an ocular vertigo, invites comparison to an emblematic shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and with equal point, for in this gesture the camera in each case indexes the female object of its fascinated gaze.2 Inviting attention to its own gaze, the camera elevates the piano to the level almost of a character in the film, even a gendered character, as Felicity Coombs argues (85). And if the music “made” by the piano is in some ways the real voice of the speechless protagonist, her voiceover also functions as a kind of spectral extradiegetic intrusion, particularly in a crucial scene when Ada becomes the victim of savage violence at the hands of Stewart, her husband. Ada’s haunting voice-over, however, is not just a trick: it functions at the ideological level as a counter to the customary “othering” of the feminine voice in cinema, and at the representational level to problematize the real versus the symbolic. The visual language of the film is frequently as telling. In one scene, for instance, an important and mischievous point about Ada’s second husband’s twisted libido is made by the camera. Stewart is voyeuristically spying on his wife and her lover, whose face is buried in her skirts. As he watches, her lover’s pet dog, possibly this man’s only (or best) friend, licks Stewart’s open palm.

Above all, the film was, and remains, thought provoking. It became the focus of intense debates about the postcolonial critique of New Zealand’s—and Australia’s—colonial past (and, by implication, their neocolonial present and their multicultural future); about feminine desire and its institutional containment within marriage; and about the psychological perplexities of human relationships, particularly love, that are the film’s main subject. These debates raise issues that remain vital in contemporary cultural studies—the inarticulacy of what enables women’s agency, the possibility of alternative forms of desire and human intercourse, the quandaries of aspirations to a meaningful postcolonial or ethnic citizenship that does not slip into the quagmire of racial and identity politics. However, when reviewing these central debates focused on feminine agency in the film, one has a strange sense of irresolution, as though some of the major issues were being abandoned without being fully developed, let alone resolved. The crux of these debates has to do with this question: what does Ada want? In this essay I offer a contribution to the debate that seeks to reinterpret this as a question not only about what Ada wants from love, but as a question about what drives her beyond love—a question about the structure of that drive.

Love, after all, is the telos of melodrama, which is itself the focus of one important trend in the film’s reception. The nineteenth century saw the rise of melodrama in an age where traditional anchors of society in organized religion and hierarchical authority were on the wane. Into the vacuum came the private individual as the locus of meaning. This individual, however, was defined primarily by...

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