This month marks the 25th anniversary of The Piano, Jane Campion’s cinematic masterpiece. The film won three Oscars and is still the only feature by a female director to be awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes. With a cinema and DVD re-release this summer, does The Piano stand up to the test of time? Who better to ask than the New Zealand-born director herself, over coffee during a visit to London?
Campion recently found an old DVD and took a look, worried that it would be like “digging up buried bones”. Instead, she was surprised: “I really felt excited by it. I thought, my God, this a film told from a female point of view and nowadays that’s still so rare.”
While The Piano was financed by a French company that gave Campion carte blanche to create her vision, it has taken a later-life foray into television for the director to find that freedom again. The two series of Top Of The Lake in 2013 and 2017, with their complex portrait of Elisabeth Moss as a police detective, have sold around the world. “I made Top Of The Lake without any concern for other people’s opinions and taste. I did just what I want and, weirdly, people love it.”
Artistic freedom allowed Campion to include a deliciously bonkers feminist moment in the first Top Of The Lake series with the women’s commune called Paradise, set up in shipping containers on the lake shore and led by Holly Hunter with straight, steely grey long hair and a funny take-no-prisoners attitude that resembles Campion’s own.
“I decided to focus on post-menopausal women. I happen to be one and I love the way people don’t pay them any attention. If you’re not fuckable, you’re totally uninteresting in this macho culture, and being ‘not interesting’ is a beautiful freedom, one of the best freedoms I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she says.
It’s taken a while. Campion remembers when The Piano opened it was heralded as a monumental moment for the female gaze, but the slew of women-led cinema we expected to follow never materialised. Yet it turns out the classic film is a perfect parable for the complexities of the #MeToo era, with its portrait of a marriage rife with coercive control, its agonising amputation scene, its silent heroine and, above all, for the erotic electricity played out, note by note, between Harvey Keitel and Hunter, seated at the polished piano in a hut deep in the Antipodean bush.
Women were under the spell. I was under the spell. I shaved all the hair off my legs and my armpits coming out of the 1970s when there was a certain vision of how sexual women should be
Hunter won a Best Actress Oscar for her mute but emotionally devastating performance as Ada McGrath, a Scotswoman sent like baggage with her piano to New Zealand to marry a man (Sam Neill) that she has never met. Anna Paquin – who plays her young daughter – won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, aged 11. Campion won Best Screenplay and is one of only five women ever nominated for a directing Oscar.
In the film, Ada’s refusal to speak gives her a perverse freedom. “Ada was experiencing things for herself in her own body and she could close the patriarchy out,” says Campion. “It was really strong for me to see that and also the intimacy, sexuality and sensuality from a more female point of view.” Beneath the hooped crinoline, there was room for cunnilingus, rather radical in Victorian costume drama.
The wild sexuality and landscape of The Piano was inspired by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. “For guys, intimacy is something they often find for themselves out in the wilderness. For women, the wilderness is often their interior life and the quest to explore and understand that. I’m interested in the psychological landscape as much as the wider world.”
Campion has often pushed boundaries. In her 2003 film In The Cut – which starred Meg Ryan not as a ditsy romcom queen, but as a woman sexually obsessed with a possible serial killer – Ryan handcuffs a detective to a pipe and has sex with him. The film went down badly with male critics, but has now seen a revival of interest from female film fans. That’s a change, as are the new movements, from Time’s Up to #5050by2020, which are encouraging more women behind and on the screen.
“I haven’t got here with the support of women alone. Women have not been…” Campion tails off and laughs resignedly. “You know, women were under the spell. I was under the spell. I shaved all the hair off my legs and my armpits coming out of the 1970s when there was a certain vision of how sexual women should be. So it’s so interesting, this new wave of feminism. I really feel it is not possible to go backwards from here.”
The Piano is re-released in cinemas from today, June 15 and on DVD from July 16