Replaying “The Piano”: Lessons from “A Girl’s Own Story”
By Eliana RozinovJanuary 27, 2024
Like Poor Things, The Piano—released 30 years earlier—is a period drama about women’s sexual agency and entrapment, one whose closing sequence uncannily echoes that with which Lanthimos’s begins. Yet unlike Bella, who ultimately gets her say over the men who aim to control her, The Piano’s heroine, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), continues, even decades later, to be defined by her muteness.
In the wake of #MeToo, when Oprah’s question—“Was she silent, or was she silenced?”—reverberates through our culture, it is important to clarify that Ada is neither. She communicates in sign language with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), who is the primary interpreter of her gestures. Crucially, then, what Ada cannot say is mediated by Flora, who utters the dark truths that her mother would rather bury. But this essay is no eulogy, for the problems of sexual injury and autonomy that The Piano addresses are very much alive today. They are made especially visible through the girl figures in Campion’s filmography, beginning with her early short, A Girl’s Own Story (1984).
The girls of A Girl’s Own Story serve a crucial function: to expose the violence behind the erotic lives of adults. They repeatedly warn their older interlocutors against the dangers of confusing pleasure with intimacy, innocence with bliss, and promiscuity with maturity. But, as a result, these girls become subject to the very adult sexual dilemmas that they, like Flora, seek to condemn. At the heart of A Girl’s Own Story is thus a question posed by Jaqueline Rose, which also permeates The Piano: “[H]ow does the little girl become a woman, or does she?”
From the woods of 1850s New Zealand to a 1960s Sydney schoolyard, Campion’s girl-children alert her audience to the consequences of suppressing the experience of gendered violence, which the women in her films are unable to voice. More broadly, these girls provide insights into what is “so uninviting about being an adult woman”—so uninviting that, in 2023, such essentials as “dinner,” “walks,” and “math” became part of the realm of “girl.” Post–Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, inhabiting a woman’s body has become so fraught that “girlhood” has been glorified by many as a space apart. In a contemporary moment where “believing women” has been conflated with a cultural anxiety about becoming them, it seems instructive to replay The Piano through A Girl’s Own Story—first through the presence of Flora, and then, again, through the figures in Campion’s lesser-known short film.
Replaying The Piano from the perspective of its girl character reveals how Campion’s work maps the strange territories of erotic desire and, in doing so, explores the blurred lines between girlhood and womanhood. From the opening scene of The Piano, it is unclear whether the drama unfolds from the perspective of a child or an adult woman. Shortly before she is shipped off from Scotland to an arranged marriage in colonial New Zealand, Ada discloses through her “mind’s voice” that she has not spoken aloud since she “was six years old. […] The strange thing is I don’t think myself silent, that is, because of my piano.”
That the original title of Campion’s film was supposed to be The Piano Lesson suggests that Ada’s sexual education commences long before her neighbor, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), demands that she teach him to play. So too does that of young Flora, who not only speaks but also acts for her mother and, at times, acts against her. Flora herself changes The Piano’s tune by giving the key intended for Baines to Ada’s axe-wielding new husband, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). In a twisted crime of passion, Stewart chops off Ada’s index finger, which he then forces Flora to bring to Baines.
The recurrent nightmare of assault to which The Piano so powerfully, if enigmatically, speaks is not confined to its perpetrators. Rather, it continues to be through the gestures exchanged between daughter and mother. As Stewart puts it to Baines in The Piano’s original screenplay, Flora and Ada “talk through their fingers, you can’t believe what they say with just their hands.” Still, these fingers, to use a line from Campion’s stage directions, “are only parts of bodies,” rendering one’s ability to determine where the woman’s perspective ends, and the girl’s begins, both a “challenge and curiosity.”
In a scene where the girl’s point of view is uniquely privileged, Flora looks through a peephole between two panels of Baines’s cabin. As she gazes at the spectacle of her mother and Baines in his bed, she is unfazed, and goes to play a game of tree-hugging with some Māori children. It is Stewart who, upon seeing her, pulls Flora from the tree and tells her, “[Y]ou have shamed these trunks.” Ironically enough, it is not Stewart but Baines whose perverse sexual impulses are unveiled among these trunks, by figures of girls no less. Campion’s screenplay develops this theme in a remarkable scene, not included in the finished film, in which an illiterate Baines takes the piano key that Ada inscribes for him to the local schoolhouse and asks a small girl to read its contents aloud. Several schoolgirls soon gather round to recite “Dear George[,] you have my heart[,] Ada McGrath,” one by one, each time filling Baines with “fresh pleasure.” The girls in the woods underscore Baines’s obsessive desire to possess Ada’s body, which Flora tries to bring to an end.
Flora’s decision to expose her mother’s sexual relationship with Baines ends dangerously not only for Ada but also for the girl herself. When Stewart drags Ada outside to chop off her finger, she does not make a sound. It is Flora who yells “No” at the top of her lungs, as the blood of her mother’s appendage spatters onto her dress and cheek. The assault is sublimated and displaced from mother to daughter, and the burden of proof remains the girl’s to bear.
After Stewart forces her to deliver Ada’s finger to Baines, Flora is found sleeping in the very bed where she saw her mother lying. Ada, on the other hand, is reduced in the aftermath of her injury to a stammering child, sustained by a “weird lullaby” of her “piano in its ocean grave.” So, The Piano’s daughter becomes a proxy for her mother’s mutilation, while her mother becomes a helpless girl.
A Girl’s Own Story similarly portrays girls as conductors of adult affairs of love, but more frankly spells out the implications of sexual autonomy around which The Piano circles. In the opening scene, three Catholic schoolgirls sit gathered round a 1960s magazine, their hands placed on a sketch of a man’s naked body. One of them traces a finger over his erection, moves down the outline of his thigh, and finally arrives at the caption below his firm figure: “THIS SIGHT MAY SHOCK YOUNG GIRLS.” Yet the girls are not shocked by this sight, or by any of the other sexual situations they confront, from infidelity to incest. The index finger of A Girl’s Own Story thus prefigures the erotic knowledge that is dismembered from Ada and transferred to Flora in The Piano.
The final short Campion produced in film school, A Girl’s Own Story traverses the lives of three girls—Pam, Stella, and Gloria—each of whom is inducted into adult sexual affairs without her consent. Much like Flora, Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg) is ordered by her father to deliver her mother a message on his behalf. Through sexual innuendo about Stella (Geraldine Haywood), who dines with them, Pam is made into the simultaneous addresser and addressee of her mother’s anger and father’s adultery. Pam, moreover, oscillates between fantasy and reality, with the most troubling of these shifts depicted through a flashback to her younger self being lured by a man to see his “kitten.”
In the following scene, a boy named Graeme (John Godden) demands that another of the film’s characters, Gloria (Marian Knight), take off her clothes and play a game of “cats” with him. Gloria is Graeme’s sister, and she is found shortly after at a convent for young mothers, among a slew of other pregnant teenagers. So Gloria is placed at a crossroads between curtailed childhood and premature motherhood, forced to remain with child at the very point at which she is stripped of her own innocence.
The “No” Flora screams upon Ada’s mutilation in The Piano may therefore be the word Gloria cannot say in A Girl’s Own Story. Instead, Gloria asks Graeme to kiss her. This time, in cruel and unusual form, he responds, “It’s not proper.” Though Graeme appears to make the rules, in The Piano it is Flora who takes a stand against this cycle of abuse. As she says to Stewart, “Mama wanted me to give this to Mr. Baines. I thought maybe it was not a proper thing to do.” Flora’s words become the catalyst for The Piano’s breakdown, revealing that what Campion terms “the path of the foolhardy and the compulsive” only goes so far.
The “speaking voice” hushed under the sea of The Piano thus remains to be heard through the pathos-filled exchanges of A Girl’s Own Story. In a scene of tender queerness in Campion’s short film, Pam and Stella are shown kissing on the bed in Pam’s room. As they embrace, the camera pans across a series of naked, upside-down, and backwards dolls on a shelf. These cold, hard plastic figures become the epitome of arrested development in the film, whose three central characters conclude by singing, “I feel the cold.” And yet, from the edge of her bed, long before any lover will ask her the question, Pam has the heart—and the mind—to ask Stella, “Do you think this is alright?”
Pam evidently does not learn the art of consent from her brawling parents. Rather, she comes to grasp the difficulties of navigating erotic life with Stella. Like Ada and Flora, they have what Campion has called “a specifically feminine intimacy,” which runs contrary to the patriarchal forces that seek to control them. At stake in the meeting of their bodies, however young or old, is a merging of minds where each girl’s story goes beyond her own and wields its telling power, precisely, in “conspir[ing] together.”
So, decades later, from the seat of The Piano, Jane Campion continues to play a lesson from A Girl’s Own Story, placing its shared truth in the cut between woman and girl, fantasy and fact, sympathy and cruelty. In this cut, Campion displays why “girlhood” should be not merely romanticized but taken seriously, as it marks the very threshold of girls and women talking. From across her cinema, Campion’s girls rise and point at us, impelling us to speak out against an underlying history of sexual violence, one that, in reality, is all too close at hand.
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