The Piano (Campion, 1993) is a film that truly embraced the style of the decade it is set in, late 1850s to early 1860s. This is shown through the costuming, music, and cinematography. It also very strongly embraced the painting aesthetics of the time. At every moment of the film you could pause it and be presented with a beautiful tableau that could have been painted during the time period. These tableaus are especially noticeable within the context of Ada and Flora McGrath’s mother/daughter relationship.
They begin the film by always being very close. Often this closeness is shown to us by their physical proximity and are often presented next to each other as if they are having their portrait made. Before the invention of photography only the well off would be able to afford having their portraits painted. However, once photography was invented “it was immediately applied to the task where it was most useful: the production of portraits” (Monaco, p. 46). The photograph above of Ada and Flora sitting together really draws on that sense of having their portrait made by either medium. The sense is created due to the fact that both Ada and Flora have very neutral expression and plays on our knowledge that both painting and early photography take a long time so often the people in the portraits are not smiling.
Additionally, their similarity in clothing adds to the visual expression that they are very close. You associate them together because of this similarity. They are presented as one family unit separate from their environment or from Ada’s new husband, Alisdair Stewart.
As the film progresses Ada and Flora’s relationship becomes more and more distant. By around the midpoint of the film there is a lot more space between them in their scenes together. The above photograph is the start of this turning point. The arrangement of Ada and Flora is very reminiscent of the 1850s paintings showing people outside for picnics or other pleasant activities. Plenty of these tableau paintings are arranged similar to portraits that just happen to happen outside with the people surrounded by nature and strong emphasis used by the lighting within the scene.
Once the camera was invented “painters were motivated to rediscover the immediacy of the moment and the peculiar quality of light” (Monaco, p. 47). This is illustrated beautifully in the above photograph. The separation between Ada and Flora is showcased by Ada being in the shade and Flora being in the sun light. They are captured in the still moment of a day that starts to emphasizes the beginning of the gap between the two of them. Flora is starting to branch away from Ada and is learning new things from the people in their community, while Ada is following a path that is leading her away from the morals of that same community. Flora’s body position also shows her openness to learning, and in turn accepting, those morals. Ada’s body position is much more closed and reserved. She is resistant to the communities ways and fiercely independent with a drive to follow her own mind. These differences are just a few of the factors that starts to push their relationship apart. This puts one in the shade and one in the light of how the community views them.
As the climax of the film rises we now actively get scenes and tableaus that do not have the two of them in them together. They have separated and now fall on one side or the other of the communities moral rules. Ada has clung strongly to her own set of morals that has led her to a man that is not her husband, while Flora has accepted the communities morals, specifically about this being wrong. She has taken to Alisdair as a parental figure and has accepted what he says as the correct way to live.
In the above photograph we see Flora alone amidst a dreary landscape. She has chosen which path to walk down by herself, thus aligning herself with one set of moral choices over another. In this case she aligns with Alisdair (and the community) over Ada. The use of lighting, as well as the choice of landscape shown, adds to the desperate nature of this scene in the film, which is dark, muddy, and unclear.
This choice and everything that the atmosphere says draws on “those years [1840s-1870s] in which the theory of painting was quickly developing away from memesis and toward a more sophisticated expression” (Monaco, p. 46). This landscape is not just about capturing what the landscape looked like but the feeling of foreshadowing and turmoil that is about to befall both Ada and Flora based on Flora’s decisions within this one moment. It is creating a sense of mimesis not with the physical world but with the inner feelings of Flora in regards to her relationship with Ada and the community at large. Her relationship to Ada has grown distant and strained but does she really want Ada hurt or punished because of her actions?
In the end, Flora does not want Ada hurt because of her actions but it takes going through the dark and the mud to realize this. Their relationship does not go back to being as close as it was at the start of the movie, however, it does end with them being in a happier place than where Flora’s choice in the mud led them.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond: Art, Technology, Language, History, Theory. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. Completely Revised and Expanded.
The Piano. Dir. Jane. Campion. Perf. Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin. Miramax Films, 1993. DVD.