New Zealand / Australia / France, 117 mins, Dir. Jane Campion
Set in the mid-19th century, The Piano is an absolute stunner of a drama that follows a mute Scotswoman named Ada (played by Holly Hunter) who expresses herself via her piano playing and sign language—of which her precocious 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin in her first-ever film role) is quite the fiery interpreter—and whose life trajectory is dictated by men. After being sold by her father into marriage, she’s shipped off to New Zealand to join her new husband, a frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) who sees little value in Ada other than as a dutiful object. After Alisdair leaves her piano behind on the beach where she and her daughter land, then trades it to his white friend George Baines (Harvey Keitel) for some land, Ada is livid and determined to reclaim her beloved instrument through a bargain with its new owner.
The implications of this film are not so positive in light of the #MeToo movement. Ada is essentially choosing the lesser of two evils—the man who hatches a plot to claim ownership of her piano, then makes a deal with her to buy it back with sensual favors, over the “husband” who expects much but offers little and twice tries to rape her (once while she's not even conscious). But you could also argue that Ada is not a victim, but strong-willed, courageous, and resourceful, that she’s just as much exploring her own sexuality and desires as she is succumbing to someone else’s, that she might be choosing between between bad and worse, but it is her decision. Plus, the differences between the two men are substantial—one is earthy and primal and completely comfortable in his own skin, accepted by the local indigenous people (implying a certain trustworthiness), and is surprisingly tender and passionate, if plain-spoken in his desires—and he generally practices consent, even if his crude advances aren’t welcome at first; while the other is callous, sneaky, inhibited, self-serving, entitled, and just not a good man.
The Piano is just so exquisitely wrought, from Michael Nyman’s somber score and compositions, to Hunter’s expressive, luminescent performance, to the film’s bleak yet gorgeous setting, to Jane Campion’s expert directing of it all. The 1993 drama nabbed Lead and Supporting Actress wins for Hunter and Paquin, respectively, and though Campion won an award for Best Original Screenplay, the Best Director Oscar honors went to a man (Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List), as has been the case in all but one instance, ever.
More great films directed by women:
Kasi Lemmons's Eve's Bayou Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird The Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending Signe Baumane's Rocks in My Pockets Suzan Pitt's Asparagus Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman