Romanticism in The Piano & Portrait of a Lady

    Jane Campion, in the context of her film The Piano, stated that she was interested in exploring “the romantic impulse” that is in “all of us and that sometimes we live … for a short time, but it’s not a part of a sensible way of living.  It’s a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously.  I treasure it in the sense that I believe it’s path of great courage.  It can also be the path of the foolhardy and the compulsive.”  This paper will explore this statement in light of Campion’s two recent films.  The Piano and her adaptation of Henry James novel Portrait of a Lady, seeing the two films as connected through their critique of the discourse of Romanticism, and its effect upon female choice.

    Romanticism is a discourse that favors nature over culture; instinct over rationality and science.  The 19th century romantic art movement, which produced both the delicate and passionate music of Chopin and the horrific vision of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein are both evoked in Campion’s work.  If The Piano presents a heroic mediation on the possibilities and limitation of romanticism and intuition, Portrait of a Lady explores the claustrophobic trap of romanticism as an ideology which leads to female paralysis.
     In The Piano, Ada has chosen silence.  In the feminist response to Freudian psychoanalysis which privileges a male discourse, the questioning of the positioning of female as Other and male as active, is an attempt at a radical redefinition of female otherness.  For example in Luce Irigaray’s writing This Sex Which is Not One, she contends that under patriarchy, “If there is such a thing – still – as feminine pleasure, than it is because men need it in order to maintain themselves in their own existence.  It is useful to them, it helps them bear what is intolerable in their world as speaking beings, to have a soul foreign to that world: a fantasmatic one (Irigaray: 96).”  This insight has resonance in an examination of the romantic.

    Freud turn 19th century romanticism, which was a paradigm which was supposedly the mirror opposite of the scientific and medical discourse, into a privilege male scientific zone through his development of a theory of instinct and unconscious drives.  For Freud these drives which due to their elevation of the irrational, codify Romantic ideals, are able to be tamed through reinscribed as scientific exploration of the way to return to normalcy through language and analytical practice.

    Ada’s lack of language – her refusal to speak – is an act of rebellion against the turning of sex, as Foucault describes it, into a discourse of repression in which that it is meant to be repressed is discussed more and more.

“Michel Foucault’s analysis of the methods by which ‘modern puritanism imposed its triple edict of taboo, non-existence and silence; on sex and the expression of sexuality … offers a revolutionary thesis for understanding the outcome of such administered censorship.  Far from imposing censorship, what was installed was ‘apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex; so that the sea was ‘driven out of hiding and constraint to lead a discursive existence’ which was simultaneous exposed and exploited as the ‘secret’ (Brussi:259).”
Freud’s desire to explore sexuality also contained it through his belief in his “right” interpretation of the meaning of various symptoms and conditions.

    In the music of Romanticism the feminine other was used as a signifier of the passions and desires which transcend the masculine.  However it could be argued that in 19th century music, the feminine which disrupts the masculine major theme, is defeated in the order structure of the final cadence, thus burying the other and defeating it within a convention which re-elevates the masculine by incorporating the ideas of Otherness for the purpose of, what Irigaray refers to as the male need to fantasy the female in order to maintain male existence occurs.  This is similar to Freud’s use of the irrational to overcome it through analysis (Reich:96-122).

    While Freud was unable to conceive of a female sexuality which lies outside male paradigm – a good example is the Oedipal complex – Irigaray contends that women need to find their own language of touch, which transgresses the visual hierarchy of scopophilia.  “Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which is Not One suggests … a women’s (body) language is described as being related to touch, as ‘women take pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into the dominant sceptic economy signifies again her consignment to passivity (Bruzzi:264).”

    In The Piano, Ada privileges the romantic: nature, intuition, passion over the rational scientific discourse of her husband, Stewart.  She achieves this through her development of a relationship with Baines, based upon the discovery of an elemental desire which transcends the bourgeois conventions of morality.  Baines is an interesting character because he transgresses both the colonial culture through his identification with the Mori, as well, as the scopophilia of the patriarchal gaze through his exploration of touch, which is a feminine transgression.

    Ada is heroic because she refuses male discourse and learns to express herself through feminine means which elude the constriction of female clothing and colonization which she has passively accepted through her marriage to Stewart (Bruzzi: 195).  In fact her decision to her ties to the piano which is her means of discourse is Campion’s way of exploring, what is her own words, is the danger of romanticism.

    By choosing life over death, a new life with Baines over drowning, she overcomes the negative aspects of the romantic discourse in which men celebrated the excesses of passion through an appropriation or misleading of the “feminine.”  The overpowering of the female in romantic art through destruction, such as the motif of drowning women, or the re-establishment of the major cadence, is confused by Ada’s realization that the romantic impulse has limits.  The instinctual, elemental rebellion against constraints is a necessary stage in her development, but she also realizes that if she plays the role of the romantic heroine her life will end in destruction.

    Baines realizes just as well that the contract he has struck with Ada, where he will give her back her piano if she will sleep with him.  In a series of highly codified games concerning removal of clothing, is a form of patriarchal control which Baines is trying, in his identification with the romantic ideal of the noble savage to eradicate in himself.  “Baines calls the bargain to end, realizing that he cannot buy, and Ada cannot see, the persona; connection, the experience of love, which he desires (Bruzzi: 285).”

    As Lynda Dyson contends the film contains contradictions in relation to images of romanticism.  She believes the film privileges a white colonial discourse by portraying the Maoris as “repositories of an authentic, unchanging and simple way of life: they play ‘nature’ to the white characters’ culture’ (Dyson:268).”  However Campion’s art seems a lot more self-conscious and calculated that Dyson gives her credit for.  Just as she plays with images of the romantic in the use of Ada’s expression of self through the language of a masculine romantic musical tradition, she uses the marginalization of the Maori as another parallel image of the way the discourse of romanticism was constructed.

    Baines is released from the negative aspects of romanticism as an inadvertent privileging of the Victorian moral order just as much as Ada.  Their marriage is a marriage based on a new foundation in which both have explored the myths of romanticism, seen how this exploration has enable them to move beyond the repressed world of Stewart.  At the same time, both characters have learned how intertwined images of the Romantic are with the mainstream discourses.  In the end the portrayals of the ability of romanticism to truly offer a liberation from science and rationality remains ambiguous.

    In contrast Portrait of a Lady emphasis the dark side of the Romantic tradition.  Osmond can be seen both as the epitome of the patriarchal order which crushed women in a sado-masochistic grip, as well as the quintessential Romantic male.  H is the Byronic hero gone amok, the romantic as monster, akin to Dr. Frankenstein who wishes to manipulate, and control nature by tapping into its element forces.

    Osmond wants to control and dominate the free spirit of Isabel Archer, the native American who is manipulated by the gothic images of a culture in which she grew up wild and free.  As Kathleen Murphy writes, Osmond turns Isabel into another one of his statues (Murphy: 31).  She becomes a frozen, paralyzed woman, trapped by social conventions and gender roles which she believed that she had the power to escape.  Campion’s project is to show how difficult it is to escape these deeply ingrained socially inscribed dichotomies between dominance and submission in male/female relationships.  “Archer’s odyssey ranges from heaven to hell on earth, from a garden rich with summer’s green-gold promise into blighting experience and back again, to a white and frozen home-base, hard ground to cultivate (Murphy: 29).”  Just as Dr. Frankenstein confronts the monster he has created in the icy wasteland of the Alps and the North Pole, Archer confronts her own misguided romantic rebellion, steeped in images of romantic which are as oppressive as convention morality, in the blighted landscape of winter.

    Campion, in both films, is attempting to present versions of the romantic ethos.  She explores its potential for liberation and its potential to contain and destroy.  In this way the two works when viewed together create an exploration of the uneasy relationship which women have to both mainstream and supposedly oppositional discourse, such as romanticism.

    As Campion contends romanticism can both be a way to freedom, a stage in the struggle for wholeness, as well as a trap, an illusion of freedom.  She is able to show how no discourse, even those of “freedom” are free of the mainstream.  There is no pure island of escape,; no easy answer to the problem of gender oppression and male/female relationships and the search of truly liberated images of the feminine.  The discovery of a separate zone, as Irigaray privileges, is not that easy to arrive.

back to Magster on Film