Thoughts On: The Piano - Intimate Betrayal


The Piano - Intimate Betrayal

Thoughts On: The Piano (1993)

A Scottish single mother is sold into a marriage with a colonist in New Zealand.

The Piano is an unnervingly beautiful film. There is a line within that describes our mute protagonist's playing of the piano, one that follows as such: 'strange, like a mood passing into you'. These very words would do just as well to describe the film itself.

Based entirely upon the concept of intimacy, both in terms of content and form, The Piano invites empathy like very few other films, its warm and quiet colours embracing the gaze, its quietness soothing all tension, its characters in their privacy openly accepting our presence, and ourselves pressing upon a back foot, unsure, pulled, pushed, repulsed and compelled to stay. Such empathy is, of course, in conflict with themes of possession and betrayal. And in a classical, novel-esque manner, this is structured around one undeniable wrong which is complexified and meandered toward and away from by imperfect, human characters. The wrong of The Piano is our main character, Ada, being sold into a marriage. This looms over all questions and conflicts to proceed, but there is nonetheless hubris and fallibility that gives rise to many victims and little innocence. As we then watch Ada's husband float about her, expecting her to act like a wife, but come to realise that she never will, it is hard not to feel for him to some degree; to not see why he, revealed to be a coward, stabbed in the most private of places within his psyche, would lash out. Unforgivable, indeed, it is that he plays a part of the taking of a woman like she were an item to be possessed. Understandable it is that Ada does not love him. And unforgivable, undoubtedly, it is that he retaliates to this with such spite and violence. But, humanity is not lost upon his character - and such is the crux of this film, its anchor-point to near-mastery that more basic films would fail to grasp by creating a pig of a husband, an inhuman caricature for us to so easily hate.

By the time we reach the end of the story, there accrues a preciousness about the violence and tyranny that we come across. And Ada, it seems, comes to feel this too. This preciousness does not characterise all that we see transpire as positive or negative. Embedded within Ada's punishing ordeal is fear, is exploitation, is humiliation, but also melancholic triumph, love, desire and stoicism. Such seems to leave her time with her 'husband' precious; and such also leaves the final image of watery anaesthetisation and a fatal tie to a spoiled voice soothing to Ada. It is through surviving a confrontation with the most intimate and explosive weakness within so many individuals, and also the most solipsistic and grey elements of herself, that Ada emerges with such peculiar resolve. The heart of this narrative dissonance, buried beneath the film's tonal harmony, is in the intimate depiction of betrayal.

Betrayal is a highly volatile theme in stories, a cornerstone of melodrama and tragedy. What The Piano manages to do so idiosyncratically is subdue and manipulate betrayal into a form of, for lack of a better word, exploration. And I believe the use of intimacy to turn betrayal into exploration is, in fact, a very human and true--but equally troubling--way of representing such actions. Betrayal, after all, seems to be a form of indulgence. This is what all stories with love triangles are trying to play with (but so often fail to do so in a worthwhile manner). The love triangle is so often a paradox of true love, or a dangerous cure to false love. It then emerges in stories where someone falls for a good person, but stumbles upon someone better - or someone they love differently. Exploration here is burdened by the idea of cheating; to even look elsewhere is to betray. The love triangle also forms, and this is often more common, in stories involving arranged or forced marriages; the original love, or an alternate love, provides a counter-point to ideas of the collective purpose of personal love. Exploration is a necessity and a relief here. The Piano, to a degree, deals with the former kind of love triangle, but, also veers from it slightly with our main character not necessarily escaping false love for true love, but finding an alternate kind of love which she comes to value (but that we find hard forgetting started with coercion). Nonetheless, the love triangle is so often a tool of betrayal, one that can deal with a just, or retaliatory, betrayal involving the deception of the 'bad guy', or it can be one that deals with a bitter-sweet or tragic betrayal which is concerned with the betrayal of oneself.

A film such as David Lean's Brief Encounter is a brilliant example of a film that deals with the love triangle as a betrayal of oneself as it tells a story of love at first sight as accidental and out of ones control; listening to the call of love becomes a form of indulgence almost impossible to characterise as either selfish or right; when does one listen to their heart?

The Piano asks similar questions to Brief Encounter, but flips the melodrama on its head, turning the positive emotions negative - the act of falling in love becomes hard to distinguish from coercion - and the negative emotions positive - the resolution of the story, the escape of the love triangle, becomes cathartic, not weighty and bittersweet as in Brief Encounter. Both films, interestingly, deal with the idea of voice at their core; the idea of not being able to speak. However, whilst Brief Encounter has a wife find a new kind of love in an honest, understanding silence with her husband, The Piano forgoes understanding, leaving the love itself as silent and the honesty split between its characters. This calls into question which film has the more cathartic ending, The Piano which ends on thoughts of death, or Brief Encounter, which ends with a loving embrace?

In the end, the comparison between Brief Encounter and The Piano reveals an intrinsic question of intimacy. Intimacy is tangible and between characters in Brief Encounter whilst in The Piano it is abstract and around the characters, a haze we, the audience, gaze through. Such reflects the incredibly significant impact that distance--implied via tone--plays in romances. And such seems to crack open, ever so slightly, the confounding experience that is The Piano.

If you're interested in finding out why I've written about this film, please check out the screenplay it is attached to.

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