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Anthropological Feminism in The Piano

Satisfactory Essays
Anthropological Feminism in The Piano

There is a moment in The Piano when the crazed husband takes an axe and chops off his wife's finger. We do not see the awful blow, but both times I watched the film the audience gasped and a few women hurried from the theater. It is a disturbing but crucial scene, the culmination of a sado-masochistic screenplay which has been condemned by some as harmful to women and welcomed by others as an important feminist work. Critics have been more nearly unanimous in their praise for The Piano, and for writer and director Jane Campion. A New Zealander, Campion made two previous low budget films with relatively unknown actors which attracted little notice and small audiences. But their quirky originality established her reputation among film cognoscenti. The Piano, by contrast, is both an astonishing artistic achievement and a major motion picture. Featuring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, it has made Campion an overnight celebrity. She is being hailed as a "natural" and "original" film maker, and no doubt she is.

Campion was also trained as a social anthropologist, however, and that training -- particularly the work of Levi-Strauss -- has had a profound impact on her directorial imagination. More than just a spectacular period piece or a feminist tract, The Piano is an anthropological excursion into the 19th century. And for Campion herself, it marks a shift from ethnography to fable-making.

Campion as Ethnographer

Campion's first esoteric film, Sweetie, was more "clinical" case history than screenplay. If it fails as a movie, it can be recommended as an instructional film for family therapists. Sweetie, the beloved daughter who turned out badly, is a greedy, impulse-ridden woman who constantly discomforts her family. Fat, if not morbidly obese, she is an unattractive personality in an unappealing body -- repulsive to conventional movie audiences. Fellini, fascinated by the grotesque, often gave such ugliness cameo roles in his films. But it is difficult to imagine any commercial film maker, even Fellini, choosing someone so utterly lacking in glamour, so completely unphotogenic, as heroine. There can be no doubt, however, that this was Campion's conscious aesthetic choice, for we see traces of the same kind of "ugly" choices in her two subsequent films. Campion is interested in Sweetie for all of the anthropological reasons that would repel an "escapist" movie audience and makes no effort to prettify her.
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