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."
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.
WHAT inspired her to write and direct "The Piano," with its challenging mixture of moods, characters, and ideas? One motivation was strictly professional. "I wanted to try and write a proper story with a narrative," she says, noting that "the straightforward three-act kind of narrative" is not a form she automatically feels comfortable with.
Other motivations came from her enjoyment of Victorian gothic novels and her knowledge of history in New Zealand, her native country. "A lot of Victorian women who came to New Zealand brought pianos with them," she says, "and this struck me as an extraordinary instrument to have in that situation." Still another influence was a movie she's never seen, but has often heard about: "Two Men and a Wardrobe," an early Roman Polanski short about two loners who run into trouble when they travel around a city wit h a huge piece of furniture in their hands.
In the end, though, Campion says instinct and impulse had as much to do with the development of "The Piano" as any conscious inspirations. "Ideas don't arrive as one whole," she says. "My mind doesn't think in very logical ways all the time."
For this reason, she relies more on the visual training she received as an art student than on the analytical techniques - such as semiology, the study of communication through signs - that are fashionable in intellectual circles today.
"I did my semiotics and everything when I was at university," she says with a rueful smile, "and I decided that didn't help me think of anything creatively, whatsoever. There's a background of that [in my mind] somewhere, but I don't want to bring it to the fore anymore, because I know it doesn't work. To be able to pull [things] apart ... isn't the same as [knowing] how to put together!"
Although plans for its international release are not yet finalized, "The Piano" has been acquired for United States distribution by Miramax Films and should arrive in American theaters this fall, after more appearances on the film-festival circuit. Others who contributed to the movie's success include cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who superbly captures the mixture of realism and surrealism that is a key part of Campion's style, and composer Michael Nyman, whose minimalist piano pieces - smartly played
by Ms. Hunter herself - brilliantly enhance the subtly dreamlike aspects of the film.
Campion is now working on two literary adaptations: "My Guru and His Disciple," from Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical account of his years as a student of Hinduism in Los Angeles, and "Portrait of a Lady," from Henry James's classic novel. One of these is expected to become Campion's next production, and moviegoers around the world are already waiting for it eagerly.