Wuthering Eighty-Eights

As romantic as a Bronte tale, Jane Campion's The Piano arrives laden with prizes -- and bursting with mute and musical passion

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This movie can't be that good -- it's won too many prizes. The Piano has been saddled with a Cannes Palme d'Or and 11 Australian Film Institute awards. For New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, the film marks a triumph of dazzling movie art and canny show-biz heart. It's that good.

The Piano is Campion's coming of age -- a delivery on the promise of her first two features. Sweetie (1989), about the devastating effect a disturbed young woman has on her family, was bitter medicine; the movie double-dared its audience to find sympathy in its dour or manic characters. In An Angel at My Table (1990), a three-part mini-series based on the biographies of Australian novelist Janet Frame, Campion located her elliptical, microcosmic style. But % this lovely film lost its way before its climax, and before it could find a wider audience.

The Piano remedies that. It is set in New Zealand, funded by Francis Bouygues' Ciby 2000 (pronounced, in French, C.B. De Mille), scored by English composer Michael Nyman, and stars some unlikely actors: Georgia's Holly Hunter and Brooklyn's Harvey Keitel join New Zealand's Sam Neill. Campion has also honed her style beyond mannerism; now the desaturated colors and oblique angles bend to serve the story. And a plangent story it is, with a typical Campion heroine: the outsider woman, the renegade from convention, as viewed from a treetop, where only God dares judge her.

In the 1850s, Ada (Hunter), a mute Scottish woman, comes to the voluptuously desolate New Zealand bush in an arranged marriage with Stewart (Neill), a landowner. Stewart cannot seduce a woman who can barely tolerate him and whose eyes burn with a fierce, almost feral obstinacy. What grievance has she against mankind, against men? And how can this crushing burden be eased?

By trying to crush her, Stewart decides. Ada has only two loves in this bleak world: her nine-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her piano. After Stewart cavalierly sells the instrument to his neighbor Baines (Keitel), Ada strikes a bargain with Baines. Under the guise of giving him lessons, she will buy the piano back from him, one black key at a time, by allowing certain sexual favors. One key is hers if she raises her skirt; two keys to let him touch her bare arm; five; 10 . . . Ada can win what she needs by meting out what she forbids her husband.

Baines is illiterate but not ignorant. Watching Ada rapt at her piano, listening to the music with which she speaks, he can detect a passion in this woman that he too wants to play. He is not a fastidious wooer. He will smell her jacket, or investigate her stockings until he finds a tiny hole that reveals skin he can touch. Soon his mind is seized with Ada. After she leaves, Baines is haunted by the echo and odor of a tiny, sinewy woman who, because she seems to be pure will unadorned by coquetry, has sparked awe in him.

And what does she feel? The viewer must translate the glances and cramped gestures of Ada's own aboriginal language. Sometimes her sideways stare says, "Men! Jeez!" and suggests the wry comedy The Piano could have been if it had not aimed higher. But mostly we see two eyeholes burning through the mask of civility to reveal raging helplessness -- until Ada finds hope in passion. Then she must face the prospects of Flora's betrayal, Stewart's rage, the loss of the piano, the sacrifice of limb and life.

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