Few films in the Miramax library are as lushly textured and complex as Jane Campion’s 1993 masterpiece, The Piano. Set in 1850s New Zealand, the movie casts a wide thematic net, using a relatively straightforward (if somewhat uncomfortable) narrative to address a broad range of issues, including colonialism, gender, and cultural identity. Since its release, The Piano has been carefully dissected by critics and theorists, spawning debates and discussions that tend to branch out in myriad directions.
It’s a relatively demanding work, insofar as its “message” isn’t immediately obvious to the casual viewer. Deconstructing the film, in fact, could begin with its narrative, its use of sound, or even its language. Today, though, we’ll take a look at perhaps the film’s most aesthetically striking element — landscape.
As she did with 1990′s An Angel at My Table, Campion returns to her native New Zealand in The Piano, deftly using the country’s topography to both drive and orient her story. On a fundamental level, one could divide the film into a triptych, based solely on the director’s choice of setting. The action begins in earnest at the beach, climaxes within the depths of the wilderness, and concludes, like the tide floating out to sea, where it began.
These two terrains, however, are far from static. The characters engage with, and struggle against their surroundings. And ultimately, they submit to them. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the landscape acts as a sort of “third party” within an otherwise binary story. Lines are drawn between man and woman, Maori and Westerner, but above it all hovers nature, silently governing human actions and behavior like an invisible puppeteer. It is only within the forest, after all, where Ada experiences her sexual awakening, where male and female become conflated, and where the “civilized” White Man sees his underlying savagery lain bare.
To underscore this governing force, Campion often employs wide, sweeping shots of her terrain, rendering her characters little more than small stick figures peppering her imagery. They seem powerless in comparison to the expanse that Campion captures, suggesting, with majestic beauty, a greater force at work.
The poles of Campion’s universe — sea and forest — aren’t entirely impermeable, either. During several scenes within the brush, Campion infuses her images with a blue tint, subtly creating the illusion of being submerged under the sea and, it turns out, foreshadowing the film’s final scene. This is something she alluded to in an interview following the film’s release:
“There is such an intensity in certain parts of the bush that you have the impression of being underwater. It’s a landscape that is unsettling, claustrophobic and mythic all at the same time … It’s scenery that has troubled a lot of Europeans when they arrived, and since they didn’t like it, they cleared a lot of it so that it looked more like Europe.”
For a more visual look at Campion’s masterful use of landscape and topography, browse through our gallery, below.