"I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Bronte portrayed in
Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we've come to use,
it's very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse; I wanted to
respond to those ideas in my own century."
This is how Jane Campion (pic) introduced The Piano to the Cannes Film Festival, writing in a
beautiful, limited edition booklet on the film, printed on ivory Lanagrain paper. But her
exploration was free of the social constraints of Bronte's time, and thus far more sexual;
"a lot more investigative of eroticism - which can add another dimension."
"We all have our fantasies of recognition" Jane
In Sydney this week, she spoke at greater length of some of the decisions she made in
the process of creating what some film writers at Cannes have referred to as her
masterpiece. For example, writing in the influential film trade daily, Moving Pictures, at
the Festival, Jan Epstein [now a contributor to Urban Cinefile, among other things] wrote:
"Jane Campion has created a masterpiece of startlingly beautiful images and powerful
eroticism that satisfies the deepest need of the heart as much as it thrills the eye and
satisfies the soul."
Certainly, Campion was delighted that palates as sophisticated and developed as those
at Cannes responded to her 'vision'; "We all have our fantasies of recognition,
things you keep striving for," she says, "and the acknowledgment is fabulous in
a formal sort of way, but the real satisfaction is in the little breakthroughs I make...a
lot of it in the early stages, often with (producer) Jan Chapman in a little shack
somewhere (working on the script) or travelling the world with NO money, trying to work
out how to finance the film.
"We started in France and went around the world to the US. We'd say to each other
before meetings, 'If they bring up money, let's just say we'll get back to them!' not
having worked out the details." Campion is laughing at the memory of it now, the
truth of it, the chaotic nature of the film business, and how ironically easy the
"It's unbelievable but they gave us 100 per cent
"It was all due to Pierre Rissient (the Cannes Festival scout who comes to
Australia each year appraising and previewing films) who suggested we get in touch with
Ciby 2000 - he'd read the script and was sure Ciby would love it. We didn't believe
it...it's very unusual."
But Ciby 2000 did love it. Offshoot of a French construction company, Ciby 2000 was set
up five years ago to develop films and film makers from all over the world. The old
construction boss turned patron of the arts, Francois Bouyges who died last week (August
1, 1993) after a long illness, was at least alive to hear of the Palme d'Or success of The
"I feel very grateful to this Medici-like person," says Campion. "Ciby
is a sort of showcase company, and they want to help certain independent directors...it's
unbelievable but they gave us 100 per cent creative control, and 100 per cent of the money
- with a generous share of the profits. It's fabulous for filmmakers."
Campion began writing The Piano (originally called The Piano Lesson, but shortened in
deference to an American play of the same name doing the rounds) in 1984, well before her
successes with Sweetie and An Angel at My Table.
"Originally the story was a history of the piano - and its life in New Zealand,
then a lot of other characters got involved," Campion recalls. One of these was Ada
(Holly Hunter), the arranged wife of Englishman Stewart (Sam Neill), who has not spoken
since she was six.
"If you can't talk things out, you have to do it in
Campion explains how she arrived at the notion of making her central character mute:
"I wanted to create a strong relationship with the piano...she compromises herself so
much for it, it would have to be something really big to make her do that. So I felt if
she couldn't speak, the piano would mean so much more to her, it'd be her voice. And it
did have useful repercussions through the movie; for example, her daughter speaks for her,
which sets up a secretive communication between the two women, quite true to life...and
the men feel even less able to understand them. Makes it sexier, too: if you can't talk
things out, you have to do it in other ways..."
Stewart, a decent if repressed man, "who probably never had sex in his life, he's
an auntie’s boy," says Campion, "becomes aroused when he spies on Ada and
Baines (Harvey Keitel, playing the neighbour) in action. It's passion! Wow! It unlocks
something in him..."
"It made me sick..." Sam Neill
And eventually leads to a single act of violence "miniscule by Hollywood
standards," as Sam Neill puts it, "but it made me sick...".
What Campion was trying to investigate was the 19th century colonial world of her
native country, New Zealand, and how most white people like Ada and Stewart were
completely unprepared for the power of sexual passion; by contrast, the Maoris, who play
an important role in The Piano, speak freely of penises and vaginas and use sexual symbols
in everyday communication.
Stewart's incomprehension of Ada is displayed at the very beginning; they land on the
shores of their new homeland and disembark from a long journey, their belongings dragged
painfully from boat to beach to homestead. Except the piano. On Stewart's orders, it is
left in its crate on the beach, much to Ada's anxiety.
When neighbour Baines offers Ada a deal for fetching the piano in return for lessons -
with subtle implication of something else - Ada's sense of propriety gives way to her
attachment to the piano.
As she slowly, slowly entangles herself in a sensuous web with Baines, her untapped
emotions erupt, but the affair ignites all of them, and Baines falls painfully in love
with her - and out of lust. Stewart is startled out of his composure, and by the end of
the film Ada is sufficiently changed to toy with the notion of Stewart becoming her sex
slave - in a sort of muted, 19th century fashion.
"I felt it was a crucial time for me" Jane
As Campion says, she could have cast unknown actors in the roles. "There are lots
of superb people around...But I felt it was a crucial time for me...I could either work
small, or work in a way to be challenged, with actors of the experience and caliber of Sam
and Holly and Harvey. They are all very committed actors, and they bring unique
Asked to comment on accusations made by a New Zealander that The Piano was somehow the
result of plagiarism, Campion smiles sarcastically. "Yeah, the guy hadn't even seen
the film. It's a beat up. You can't make a film like this infringing copyright...He was
involved in an early draft of a thing called The River. Friends of mine own the copyright.
Look, it's so inaccurate (the claim) it's not worth commenting on."
Campion speaks now about how "sensible" her progress as a film maker seems to
have been, although unplanned. "I started with a seven minute film, but it seemed big
to me. Than I did a half hour, then 70 minutes, and then you realise you can do a
"Directing is a very hard job" Jane
And although she thoroughly enjoyed making the film, it was tough. "I loved it
actually, more than I had before...it used to terrify me. Now it's a big high. But
directing is a very hard job. It's a long time commitment, an intense six months of my
life. That's a long time to be so intense about something that all your relationships fade
into the background."
But there is no sign of Campion settling into some different line of work, with at
least two new films to make one after the other (Portrait of a Lady, and Holy Smoke, both
adaptations from novels).
"Without doubt I'll make a film less successful (than The Piano) but that's all
right with me, as long as it's satisfying to make. I just hope I don't get addicted to the