The Female Gaze: The Piano and Jane Campion

Paper by Marcie McTigue.

The 1993 movie The Piano is a gorgeous film that uses the natural beauty of the beaches and wilds of writer/director Jane Campion’s native New Zealand as a backdrop to a violent fairy tale. The Piano is a fictional narrative period drama set in the mid-1800s. It was filmed over two. months in the winter of 1992. Some critics argue that The Piano is in a film movement called the Female Gaze but it is also a romance, a tragedy, and it challenges societal views of women. The film won many awards, including the Palme d’Or for Campion and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for nine-year-old Anna Paquin, Best Actress for Holly Hunter, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion.

This paper will explore the idea of the female faze in Jane Campion’s film The Piano, specifically looking at the pivotal scene between Ada (Holly Hunter) and Baines (Harvey Keitel) where Baines says that their arrangement of her playing piano in exchange for sexual favors is, “making you a whore and me wretched.” This scene is relevant to the rest of the film because this turning point forces Ada to look deeply at the relationship she has with her husband Stewart (Sam Neill) and with Baines and shows that, even without speaking a word, the mute Ada is the protagonist and steers the film with her female gaze. This distinctly female focus won accolades for Campion, Hunter, and Paquin with the film’s departure from mainstream male gaze
filmmaking and opened doors for future female gaze films.

Jane Campion came to filmmaking through an unusual path, first receiving a degree in
Anthropology at Victoria College in New Zealand and then a second degree in painting from
Sydney College of the Arts. She then studied film at the Australian Film Television and Radio
School. She used these skills, studying human relationships and then painting, to create the
immersive emotional films that she has written and directed. Campion also brings a unique
perspective to The Piano as a New Zealander herself. After receiving financing for The Piano
from influential Pierre Rissient, a scout for the Cannes Film Festival, Campion had the budget to
get the A-list actors needed for these difficult roles. Jan Chapman, the film’s producer said, “We
suddenly had a champion who gave us incredible creative freedom. He believed in the
filmmaker’s vision and he believed in Jane.” (Baughan, 2018)

In Classical Hollywood Cinema, the camera creates a lens for the audience to identify a
protagonist, usually a man, and this shapes the viewers’ experience of the film. For most of early
filmmaking, the gaze was male since filmmaking was an exclusively male profession and the
audience shared the filmmaker’s vision. “Cinematic language is invisible because movies move
too quickly…The spectator subconsciously identifies with the camera’s viewpoint.” (Maestu,
2023) According to professor Jonathan Schroeder at Brandies, the gaze “implies more than to
look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power.” (Mead, 2022) A film that stands out
as being emblematic of the male gaze in filmmaking is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window . The
women are submissive, deferring to the man who, despite his injury, is powerfully in charge and
persuasive to everyone around him. The viewer is keenly aware that the audience is viewing
everything, even activities in the apartment, through the eyes of a male protagonist. “The female
gaze is a response to this unequal macho man consumption in our media, pointing out the neglect
of female characters and the lack of female desires in media.” (Mead, 2022)
The Piano begins with a very male-dominated premise, Ada and her young daughter
Flora are sent by Ada’s father from Scotland to New Zealand to marry Stewart, a man they have
never met halfway around the world. After a terrifying beach landing through high surf, the two
are left by the sailors on the sand to spend the night alone with all their belongings. This is the
first indication that Ada is a very strong female protagonist. When offered the opportunity to sail
on to the city of Nelson with the ship, Ada chooses to stay on the beach and await her fate with
Stewart who she expects will be arriving soon. Since Ada is mute, the audience is very aware of
the female gaze throughout this film. Every emotion is conveyed through her piercing dark eyes
and her determined jaw.

Part 1
About an hour into the film, the scene begins with Ada at the piano in Baines’s rustic
cabin, selecting the next black key to signify the continuation of their arrangement of exchanging
Ada’s access to play her piano for Baines’ voyeurism and commandments to Ada to remove
items of her clothing. Previously, Campion has shown Baines’s enthusiasm to see more and more
of Ada’s body, beginning with a perfect point of view extreme closeup shot of Ada’s leg through
a tiny hole in her wool stocking.

This scene has a very different mood than the fulfilled pattern set by the previous scenes.
In Campion’s mise-en-scene, Baines is sitting dejectedly, crouched in a dimly lit corner of his
one-room cabin. He tells Ada to play what she likes. In the cabin, lit only by an open window
above the piano and a small lamp near his bed, the audience is focused on Baines’s expressions
and body language. The light from the window backlights Ada’s figure at the piano and creates a
soft glow on her skin. Baines has a powerful sexual desire for Ada but he knows he has lured
Ada to his cabin with the promise to earn her piano back by playing for him. He doesn’t know if
she has any feelings for him.

Much of the scene is completely silent other than the diegetic sounds of footsteps, the
rustle of clothing, and briefly, Ada’s piano playing. By using natural soft lighting, a simple rustic
setting, and little music or dialogue, the audience is made aware of the elaborate 19th-century
costumes and hair styling of The Piano , especially as the sexual tension is driven by the removal
of layer after layer of Ada’s clothing. Additional tension is created by the slow sparse dialogue
from Baines and the silence from Ada. The eyeline match cuts between Ada and Baines intensify
the closeness of their proximity and their desires. In the scene, Ada begins to play the piano and,
while her back is turned and the camera and audience are focused on Ada, Baines moves behind
his bedcurtain. When Ada stops playing and moves to find him, Baines is completely naked,
shown to Ada and the audience in full frontal nudity. This is a powerful scene using the female
gaze. The audience is aware of the sexual tension through Ada’s vantage point.

Baines wants to lie with Ada without clothes. Ada demands payment of ten black keys
and Baines complies. Ada controls this situation, just as she has in almost all the previous scenes
in the entire film. Early on, she demands that Baines take her to see her piano on the beach and
he complies. She sees how her husband views her as unimportant when he won’t get her piano
and trades it to Baines, so she ignores his requests for intimacy. And here, she demands a high
price to get her piano back sooner. It is through her gaze that the audience sees all these
interactions. She is not innocent, but an equal in the transaction.
But their secret liaison is discovered by Ada’s daughter who reports back to Ada’s
husband, Stewart. In a series of parallel cut scenes, Flora is shown out in the forest humming and
playing alone until she hears a noise and goes to the cabin to investigate. The tension builds for
the audience since they know what she will see when she looks through the cracks in the
wallboards. Like in Rear Window , the audience watches her watching. This time the voyeur is
female and the gaze belongs to a little girl discovering the complicated world of adults that is
going to affect her future.

Here, Campion cuts to a louder and more jovial shot of Flora and the Maori children
pretending to copulate with trees out in the forest as three Maori women look on in amusement.
Campion continues to omit any kind of non-diegetic music but it’s fun to have a little levity at
this point. It also allows Stewart to storm in and reprimand Flora for playing in a sexual way. In
an ellipsis cut, Campion moves the action to the evening, where Stewart is watching Flora scrub
the tree trunks with soap as a punishment. Unlike Baines, he has kept his very stern European
ways and is not a man to bend conventions. Flora shares her secret and Stewart is visibly
surprised, he looks startled and shocked but shows no anger on his face.
Before Baines and Ada can be confronted by Stewart, Baines gives the piano to Ada and
has some of the Maori men move it to her cabin. When Ada comes to his cabin to confront
Baines, he says, “I’ve had enough. The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched. I
want you to care for me but you can’t. It’s yours, leave. Go on, go.” He has fallen in love with
her and no longer wants this unequal, transactional relationship with her. He wants Ada to return
his love or leave him alone. He acknowledges her hold over him.

Part 2
This scene takes place at the end of the first act of the 3-act structure of the film. The
setup is complete and Ada must choose her future. The confrontation and the resulting
conclusion to her story have been created. In giving Ada her freedom from the deal, Baines is
giving Ada free will, the first she has had since the beginning of the film when her father forced
her to marry Stewart. She must listen to her heart and can no longer lean on the deal of the black
keys of the piano to dictate the relationship she will have with Baines. The repetition of their
piano-playing scenes has now been broken and she is the protagonist in the romance with Baines
that will turn her husband against her.

Ada chooses Baines once she escapes from Stewart, who violently tries to keep her to
himself. Baines makes his plans to leave and a frightened Ada frantically finds a way to leave as
well. There is another terrifying scene on a small open rowboat before she is able to begin a new
life in Nelson with Baines and Flora. She has the men untie the piano, which was precariously
balanced on the gunwales and has them throw it overboard. As the piano sinks Ada is caught in
the attached rope and almost drowns.

Ada’s sudden decision about the piano, the film’s main prop, is another important turning
point in the film. Initially, the piano represents her voice since she doesn’t speak. When Stewart
refuses to bring the instrument from the beach and sells it to Baines, the piano is a sign of
Stewart’s patriarchal views and his selfishness. Later, when Ada visits the piano on the beach
with Baines the audience witnesses the only moment of Ada’s pure happiness in the film, playing
ethereal music while her daughter dances on the beach. When Baines acquires the piano and
trades lessons to Ada to earn her piano back she is initially angry but her heart softens to Baines
as she witnesses his adoration and his acceptance of her female gaze and power. When Ada
realizes that Baines wants an equal and true romantic partnership she removes a key from the
piano and inscribes it as a gift to Baines. And finally, when she has the piano thrown into the sea,
she is leaving her old life behind and, after briefly almost giving up, she moves on from the
piano and is released from the heaviness that it represents.

The costuming by Janet Patterson in The Piano is another important part of the
mise-en-scene and the storytelling throughout the film. “The costumes were a seminal part of the
film,” says Chapman. “The underwear created the character of Ada in many ways.” (Baughan,
2018). The audience is made aware of the cultural differences between the Maori and the
Europeans in part based on how they dress. Ada and Flora always wear many layers of clothing:
fitted bodices, full skirts with heavy pleating at the waist, false sleeves with embroidered cuffs,
long chemises, cotton bloomers, a corset and hoopskirt for Ada, petticoats, wool stockings,
leather boots, and stiff brimmed black bonnets with ribbon ties. “They represented the character’s
Victorian mid-century displacement into the rainy muddy back world of New Zealand.”
(McQueen, 2023) The mixing of the cultures is also evident in the scene. The Maori men and
women wear a mix of traditional and European clothing together and Baines has adopted at least
some Maori culture as shown by his Ta moko or facial tattoos. The removal of the layers of
Ada’s clothing is symbolic of her finding herself. Baines quickly disrobes while Ada removes
her ensemble over several different shots.

Ada finds power in her sexuality and uses that power to find a way out of an unhappy
marriage. She loses a finger in a violent encounter with Stewart in a later scene in the film and
she almost drowns as she leaves the settlement. But, despite everything, Ada chooses her own
destiny, risking her very survival. Through it all, the audience sees the beach, the forest, the
piano, and the men and women who live in the settlement through Ada’s eyes, through a female

The scene where Baines and Ada end their arrangement for ownership of the piano is
important to the female gaze of the film. By empowering this silent woman, who only speaks
through her music, a few handwritten notes, and the pleas of her daughter, Stewart must give up
his attempts to control Ada. Not the wild, muddy, isolated landscape, not the sea, and no man has
power over Ada. The female gaze, in this case, the way that Ada views the world, is what the
camera sees and what the audience sees. The Piano is an important film in the future of the
female gaze and the future of women-written and women-directed films.

Works Cited
Baughan, Nikki. “Memories of Making the Piano – 25 Years of Jane Campion’s Wild,
Windswept Masterpiece.” BFI , 14 June 2018, Accessed 28 Sept. 2023.
Maestu, Nicholas. “Unit 1: Why Study Film? What is Film?” Ventura College Film V01 slides.
-links?module_item_id=5085609 Accessed 28 Sept. 2023.
McQueen, Larry, “Holly Hunter as Ada in ‘The Piano’ Designed by Janet Patterson,” Film
Costume Collection .The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design, Accessed 28 Sept, 2023.
Mead, Eleanor. “What Is the Female Gaze in Film?” , 13 Oct. 2022, Accessed 28
Sept. 2023.

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