The Piano: Ancient Mimesis Through Motion
The Gothic stands out by drawing upon a rhetoric of the uncanny which perverts mimesis and creates terror and disorientation. (Quéma 2004:1)
The following sequence from The Piano (Jane Campion 1993) has links to the gothic genre, particularly its aesthetics, suggesting the plight between Ada (Holly Hunter) and Alisdair (Sam Neil) is based on primal instinct rather than mutual adoration. Campion chooses to portray Alisdair as a predator, giving him qualities which draw resemblance to an extinct bird which roamed the South Island of New Zealand, the Haas eagle, illuminating Maori mythology through the mise en scéne.
Staged in the wilderness it begins with a wide shot of a small hillside covered by the rainforest, Ada runs obscured by trunks of moss covered trees (keeping with the gothic aesthetic of tall and foreboding elements) the camera fluidly tracks her from screen right to screen left. Unbeknown to Ada (but privy to the audience) Alisdair watches from behind a tree before revealing himself, the shot cuts to a Point Of View (POV) of his face filling the screen in close up, an important element to note at this precise moment is the use of non-diegetic sound, a bird hawking.
The wilderness and soundtrack play a crucial role in building Alisdair’s portrait as a bird of prey, it is important to note he waits, encircles Ada to take her when she is most vulnerable, confronting her through physical force, swooping on her - characteristics of an eagle on the hunt.
The reverse close up of Ada focuses on her diluted pupils, she steps back before a jump cut shows Ada pursued by Alisdair in a wide shot that swiftly crab dollies left to right. The soundtrack features only diegetic sound of the surrounding wilderness (leaves rustling under foot, the wind) accompanied by Michael Nyman’s score. Ada is positioned in the centre of this wide shot with Alisdair pursuing directly behind her, the pair blend into the scenery, their costumes are coloured black and velvet green camouflaging with the mossy tree trunks. It is the costumes that are most notably gothic, Ada’s Victorian ravin coloured dress highlights her silhouette, a fragile mousey woman while Alisdair’s cape flares out behind him like wings spread in the wind.
Alisdair clutches Ada, another distinct hawking is audible on the soundtrack, this sound occurs whenever Alisdair physically encroaches upon Ada. The only eagle to have lived in New Zealand is the Haas eagle - now extinct, it lived in the mountains of South Island and weighed about 18 kilograms - which, like Alisdair, was a predator and as Casey explains:
Maori mythology of the legendary pouakai or hokioi, a huge bird that could swoop down on people in the mountains and was capable of killing a small child. (2009)
This mimetic element is being channeled through Alisdair in an uncanny sense, heightened by the gothic mis en scéne of the Haas eagle’s dwelling and steeped in the Maori mythology.
Cutting to a tight mid shot Ada reaches for a tangle of vines seeking to hide herself, the camera’s frame rate speeds up rapidly, the reverse affect on screen is the action slows down, Ada’s movements become rounded, smooth, highlighting nuances in performance creating richer, fluid undertones - it is the use of high-speed filming that creates a romantic appeal to the sequence. This ethereal treatment romanticizes the wilderness and subdues the violence of the attack.
Campion’s choice to slow down the motion disrupts time within space, allowing the audience to perceive small elements that could otherwise be lost if the action was fast paced and quick, for example: in the third shot I described (a very simple reverse close up of Ada as she steps backward) the camera picks up an extremely slight widening of her eyes, a sense of shock, this movement is so slight without the hi-speed ramping it would be lost in fast paced shots however, with enough time to digest the action, the audience is able to perceive Ada’s shock visually instead of through dialogue or exposition, as Quéma states:
the representation of the uncanny is a mise en scène of the subject's ontological panic when caught between the states of knowing and unknowing, blindness and revelation. (2004:6)
Displacing time within the sequence moves attention from plot (Ada being pursued) to Ada’s transcendental experience - she is depicted as a small, defenseless animal, the environment escalating to become a dangerous and foreboding place that leaves her vulnerable - caught between two worlds, her love for George (Harvey Keitel) and her life with Alisdair, her emotions take hold breaking her free from the Victorian tradition of composure.
Alisdair pulls on Ada off screen left, gravity seems to pause as her body drifts sideways and upwards, lifting into the air as she clings to the vines before losing her grip and collapsing on the leafy ground, cutting to another wide shot Alisdair forces himself on top of her, pressing his face against her in profile, the shot hangs for some while in a close up.
Through his primal behaviour it becomes apparent Alisdair shares many similar traits to a predatory eagle - he is perched high within society having positioned himself to be superior compared to his fellow townsfolk and the Maori’s whom he employes, ownership is an important part with his want to claim land, widening and protecting his territory as an eagle does while nesting, indeed Alastair is nesting his bride and young.
Cutting back to the wide reveals Alisdair has his hand (talons) inside Ada’s dress, clutching her groin, she coils, the distinctive bird cry Campion has been reiterating throughout the sequence builds at this point and Ada tries to escape by crawling towards a low lying canopy of vines (such as what a small animal would do) which muddies the foreground and obscures the background, they envelope Ada framing her in a repressive struggle, she reaches for the vines to pull herself away from Alisdair’s grip, the camera crab dollies screen left to right.
The use of constant tracking shots create a sense of flight, the camera moves seamlessly cutting through the forest with ease, the wind creates motion in the leaves, Alastair’s fluttering cloak, it brings forward an ancient mimesis, an apparition of the Haas eagle through Alisdair, by the motion contained in the sequence.
The sequence comes to an abrupt end, Flora (Anna Paquin) is heard off screen crying, “Mamma! Mamma! They’re playing your piano!”, the only dialogue featured in the sequence. Revealed in the background she runs, the camera reverse crab dollies from a wide shot into a medium close-up of Ada and Alisdair together in a foreground, the vines still obscuring the pair. The sequence ends, Alisdair is restored to normality with Ada gaining control through the use of her ‘voice’ in Flora.
Casey, Michael. "Extinct New Zealand Eagle May Have Eaten Humans." PhysOrg.com - Science News, Technology, Physics, Nanotechnology, Space Science, Earth Science, Medicine. 11 Sept. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.
Henershot, Cyndy. "(Re)visiong the Gothic: Jane Campion's The Piano." Literature Film Quarterly 26.2 (1998): 97-108. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
Quéma, Anne. "The Gothic and the Fantastic in the Age of Digital Reproduction." English Studies In Canada 40.4 (2004). Web. 30 Mar. 2011.
The Piano. Dir. Jane Campion. Perf. Sam Neil, Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin. Miramax Films, 1993. DVD.
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