Passion For 'Piano'

Four years ago Jane Campion, an unknown New Zealand-born filmmaker, arrived at the Cannes Film Festival flush with excitement at having her first feature film, "Sweetie," chosen for inclusion in the competition. She left in tears. Blind to its strange brilliance, the audience turned its wrath upon her film; at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, the loudest sound was the thwack of abandoned seats as the tuxedoed crowd fled in midmovie.

This year in Cannes, Campion has been the focus of an adulation so intense it has almost alarmed her. Even before the festival began, the hype about "The Piano" had reached fever pitch. A lock for the Palme d'Or, handicappers whispered. At the official black-tie screening, hundreds of angry ticketholders were turned away at the door and shuttled off to another screening room where an impromptu showing was hastily assembled to avoid fistfights. If the movie's U.S. distributor, Miramax (box), was worried that the hype would create a backlash, the delirious standing ovation at the Lumiere washed away those fears. Whether she ended up with the big prize or not (and there was stiff competition from Chen Kaige's epic Chinese film "Farewell to My Concubine" and Englishman Mike Leigh's grimly funny "Naked"), for a long moment last week Campion, almost eight months pregnant and dog-tired from days of interviews, was the hottest new name on the scene.

"The Piano" is a riveting excursion into 19th-century sexuality, a movie that takes the conventions of the Gothic romance and refracts them through a dark contemporary lens. In the 1850s, a Scottish widow named Ada (Holly Hunter) sails to New Zealand with her young daughter (Anna Paquin) for an arranged marriage to a colonial landowner (Sam Neill). Ada, who is mute, brings with her her cherished piano, her most passionate means of expression. When her new husband refuses to transport the piano through the bush, it's bought by an illiterate English settler named Baines (Harvey Keitel) who wears Maori tattoos on his face, native style. He strikes a bargain with Ada: she can win her piano back, key by key, in return for favors that become increasingly sexual. At first he just wants to look at her shoulders while she plays for him, but their private recitals in his cabin, far from her unsuspecting husband, begin to evolve into a grand passion. And when the husband discovers that Ada is sharing with Baines the erotic pleasures she denies him, he extracts a startling and cruel retribution, which is not the end of the story but sends it spinning off in unexpected directions.

In "The Piano" Campion reveals a romanticism that was not evident in the spikily oddball "Sweetie" or in her wonderful three-hour film about the New Zealand writer Janet Frame "An Angel at My Table." But she has not lost her fierceness or her extraordinary eye: the beauty of her images of briny seas and dank tropical forests owes nothing to postcard makers. And in Holly Hunter's willful Ada (a performance so expressive you almost forget she isn't speaking), she creates a memorably eccentric heroine who finds her place in the world by pushing instinctively against the restraints of 19th-century civilization. Erotic, mysterious and exquisitely etched, "The Piano" transmutes the bodice-ripping tropes of the "woman's film" into fierce cinematic poetry.

The 39-year-old director/ writer wasn't planning to stay in Cannes to see if she won the prize. Her baby is due on July 1, and she needed to get back home to Sydney, Australia, while she was still allowed to fly. She was happy that people responded so strongly to her film, but the hosannas in Cannes weren't turning her head. "This should be so egoamplifying, but it doesn't work that way," she said. She's learned her lesson since the hard Cannes knocks of 1989. "After 'Sweetie' it took me a while to regain my equilibrium. I was too open, too innocent about it all then. I worry for the first-time filmmakers here. I want to protect them."

Whether "The Piano" catapults her out of the art-house circuit and into the commercial mainstream remains to be seen (it will open in the United States in either August or November). But her future projects are getting bigger. She's just been in Italy preparing her version of Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady" to star Nicole Kidman. Though trained at art school, she's an imagemaker with a rare passion for the written word. She considers "The Piano" her homage to Emily Dickinson and the Brontes. And she's developing a project about Christopher Isherwood and his guru, wedding her interests in the spiritual and the earthly. Campion, who looks like Meryl Streep's heartier sister, is reported to have a will of steel under her polite manner. It has enabled her so far to pursue her singular vision without compromise. Happily, the world is now discovering what a small but ardent cult has known all along-that Jane Campion is one of the most splendid filmmakers around.

Passion For 'Piano' | News