Power and property
Written and Directed by Jane Campion
Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill and Anna Paquin
Reviewed by Chris Slee
Set in 19th century New Zealand, this film explores the unequal relationship between men and women. It shows how men's ownership and control of property gives them power over women's lives — a theme still relevant today, despite changes in women's legal status regarding property ownership.
Ada (Holly Hunter) arrives in New Zealand from England, bringing with her the piano which is her most valued possession. She has come to live with Alister Stewart (Sam Neill), her husband in an arranged marriage.
Stewart is a farmer, for whom the piano has no use-value. He initially leaves it sitting on the beach, then sells it to a neighbour, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), in exchange for 80 acres of land. Ignoring Ada's protests, he asserts his right as husband to dispose of his wife's property as he sees fit.
George at first uses his control of the piano as a means of pressuring Ada into sexual relations with him. He invites her to his home, supposedly to give him piano lessons.
He offers to "sell" the piano back to Ada, with payment being made in sexual acts ranging from a kiss to lying together naked. It is a form of prostitution, as he himself acknowledges.
It is a commercial transaction between two people with grossly unequal economic power.
After a time however, the nature of the relationship changes. Ada becomes increasingly attracted to George. George, on the other hand, is torn between attraction to Ada and shame at his behaviour. Eventually the latter prevails and he gives the piano back to Ada before the "payment" is complete.
By giving up his ownership of the piano, he is giving up his economic power over her. Yet paradoxically, and to his own surprise, he thereby opens the way for a genuine love relationship to develop.
Ada's husband, by contrast, uses his position of power ever more ruthlessly; he locks Ada in the house and uses physical violence.
While the film taken as a whole is clearly pro-feminist, the relationship between Ada and George has some ambiguous aspects. Ada's attraction to George initially develops during the period when he is misusing his economic power. Some viewers may see this as implying that women like to be oppressed. An alternative view is that the attraction occurs despite the oppression, not because of it, and that it is George's break with his previous oppressive behaviour that enables a real relationship to develop.