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Jane Campion Directs on Instinct

Filmmaker of the prizewinning `The Piano' talks about Victorian gothic novels and New Zealand

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1993


HARVEY KEITEL is better known for bruising pictures like "Taxi Driver" and "Bad Lieutenant" than for international art films like "The Piano," a top prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Yet asked for a one-word description of filmmaker Jane Campion, as she directed him in his new movie, he replies without a pause: "goddess."

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Told about Mr. Keitel's remark a few minutes later, Ms. Campion laughs delightedly. "Lately he's changed his tune," she chuckles, explaining that there were moments during the making of her ambitious film when feelings weren't quite so positive.

In any case, the hard work by cast and director has paid off handsomely. "The Piano" won the Golden Palm for best picture at Cannes, sharing the award with "Farewell to My Concubine," a large-scale Chinese drama. This marked the first time a Chinese director - or a female director from any country - had garnered the top prize at the world's most renowned filmfest. (The Chinese government has banned the film.)

Another winner was Holly Hunter, whose performance in "The Piano" earned her the award for best actress. She plays Ada, a 19th-century woman who mysteriously stopped speaking while a child, and expresses her emotions through written words and the music she plays on her beloved piano. Her story begins when she arrives in a remote area of New Zealand, with her young daughter and as many possessions as her boat can carry, for an arranged marriage with a handsome landowner, played by Sam Neill.

When he declares it too expensive to bring her piano to their home - leaving it abandoned on the beach where it was unloaded - she starts to resent him and refuses to consummate their marriage. Instead she develops a complex relationship with an illiterate neighbor who has taken possession of the piano. At first he blackmails her, allowing her to earn the instrument back by indulging his sexual wishes. Later they recognize each other's higher qualities, however, and fall in love. The climax of the film i s a horrific confrontation between Ada and her husband. The end is contrastingly gentle and mature.

"The Piano" has ingredients that often make for commercial success in American theaters, including some harrowing violence and a couple of surprisingly graphic sex scenes. Its intelligent screenplay and resonant images were enthusiastically received by the art-film connoisseurs at Cannes, however, and it promptly became the most talked-about picture of the festival.

This marked a major change from Campion's previous experience at Cannes, when her debut feature - the acerbic comedy "Sweetie," made five years ago - was booed by many at its initial press screening. Campion still remembers how she and her collaborators "cried our eyes out" shortly after that incident.

The joke, however, was on the people who jeered. "Sweetie" became an international success and was soon followed by "An Angel at My Table," a film biography of author Janet Frame, directed by Campion with unfailing taste and intelligence. Today she looks back at the booing with a healthy sense of perspective. "What you feel about what you've done is the most important thing," she says, adding that her close encounter with film-festival scorn may have helped her avoid becoming "addicted" to nothing but fa vorable responses.