Posted by: graceoddity | November 6, 2020

Perception, Gaze, and Sensory Dimension in The Piano


I would like to preface this by saying that although The Piano does contain two instances of photography being used in the film’s narrative, the visuality discussed in this post will primarily be removed from a wider sense of visual culture, and will instead be on the smaller scale of visual sensation and gaze. 

The Piano is a film set in colonial New Zealand in the mid-1800s following Ada, who is psychologically mute, and her extramarital affair with local George Baines after she is sold into marriage by her father to Alisdair Stewart. She communicates via sign language, which her young daughter Flora translates, and by playing her piano, which is left on the beach with pieces of their luggage upon her arrival. (Interestingly, she talks about a man from a previous relationship as having heard her voice communicating in his head, which her husband also mentions – both become afraid of her for this as it is unnatural, disorded: perception without stimulus). 

Ada’s mutism reduces her almost purely to the visual. Her modes of communication are the only things which allow her to encroach upon the auditory sphere – her daughter, who allows her to speak, and her piano, which allows her to make music. The piano, although imperfect, is the only mode of expression which belongs wholly to Ada, and which is fully under her control, especially as her daughter becomes more rebellious. This is why the piano is so important to her, and why she enters into her deal with George Baines to exchange sexual favors to get it back.

This deal begins in the visual – at first, Baines simply wants to watch while she plays the piano. He reduces her to a visual object and, by owning the piano, he exerts control over Ada through his possession of the singular mode of expression she truly owns. However, it soon progresses as he demands more of her. His gaze, although implied to treat her as a sexual object, becomes explicitly so when he demands to lay underneath her skirts and look at her legs while she plays. At this point, he reaches out and touches her leg through a small hole in her stockings, and crosses over from solely watching to physical touch. At this point, this abusive transaction he has coerced her into progresses into sexual favors, which she appears uncomfortable with. However, after Baines gives her piano back, calls off their “deal,” and cuts off contact, Ada seeks him out for an affair of her own free will. 

The movie seems to tonally treat their relationship as a romance, and it could be argued that Ada has discovered a new freedom in this expansion into the sensory modality of touch; that like her piano, Ada’s sexual relationship with Baines affords her a multidimensionality beyond vision. Not only is she present beyond the visual, but she is in control of this sensory modality in a way that she is not of how she is perceived; perception is passive, centered in the other, and not always requited, in a way that touch, in this situation, is not. However, although Ada is technically no longer under Baines’ control, he sexually abused her in the past even if he reneged on their “deal” later and gave the piano back. Because of this sexual coercion, I struggle to speak about it in positive terms, or describe their relationship as giving any form of freedom to Ada, but she has chosen this affair in a way she did not choose the marriage she was sold into. 

Amidst this, however, Ada’s husband Alisdair enters the sensate matrix of their affair, as he spies on them through the wall and floorboards. Beyond this initial literal watching, which the viewer does not see repeated, Alisdair functions as surveillance of their relationship throughout the film; he knows of their affair, and keeps tabs on them. Even Ada’s daughter functions as a surveillant apparatus for him, reporting to Alisdair when she finds out her mother is attempting to send a message to Baines. Ada and Baines are aware of his watching, and attempt to conceal their affair for her own good.

Alisdair becomes frustrated that there is no affection of any kind in their marriage, particularly of a sexual nature. Eventually, Ada becomes intimate with him, but does not allow him to touch her – thus, at the only time he has wanted Ada to be more than a visual object, she denies him. In a similar reversal, when Alisdair attempts to rape Ada while she is unconscious, she awakes and makes eye contact, and he freezes. It is unclear what happens next due to a sudden cut after an extreme close up shot of her eyes (emphasizing her watchfulness), but he appears to stop when he realizes she can see him. In a reversal of her husband’s surveillance of her illicit acts, perception is weaponized by the woman who has been the persistent object of an oppressive gaze. 

(Here, I would also like to note that the two instances of photography I referenced earlier as being in the narrative are Alisdair’s possession of Ada’s portrait which he checks his reflection in, and a wedding portrait he makes her sit for, both of which occur at the beginning of the movie before the affair. Not necessarily relevant beyond the fact that they signify his possession her image, but amid all of our discussion of photography, I feel it would be remiss of me to not mention them).

Lastly, I would like to move away from the sensory dimensions of Ada’s relationships, and talk instead about the visuality of the movie’s final image. As Ada, Flora, and Baines leave New Zealand by boat, Ada’s piano weighs the boat down. She tells them to throw it overboard, and after protest from Baines, he agrees to do so. As the piano sinks, it pulls a coiled rope from the boat; Ada steps on the rope so that it tangles around her ankle, and pulls her down with the piano. After sinking quite deep, she changes her mind about this suicide attempt, unties her leg, and swims to the surface. The piano sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Ada’s voiceover, after describing her new life with Baines, says that sometimes she thinks about her piano, and imagines herself floating above it. We see an image of the piano at the bottom of the sea, with Ada’s floating body tethered to it. The voiceover goes on to say that it is still and silent, and she imagines this at night to lull herself to sleep. This image of Ada’s body is overwhelmingly passive in its visuality, but the silence here is comforting to her instead of oppressive. This is because the visuality is wholly within her possession; the dead Ada of this still image exists only in her mind’s eye, sealed internally to be looked at, heard, perceived in any way, by no one but herself. She says: “It is a weird lullaby, and so it is: it is mine.” Ada is finally, at least in some internal sense, in possession of her own image.

Works cited:
The Piano. Directed by Jane Campion, Jan Chapman Productions/CiBy 2000, 1993.


  1. Hi Grace! This is a really great description of the way sensory input functions in this film. I think you handled the more difficult topics the movie covers with the perfect combination of straightforwardness and nuance. I was particularly interested in your depiction of the characters’ gazes, both on one another and on their environment. The visual of Ada imagining her own dead body as a form of comfort is really compelling, and I appreciate you pointing out that it is not death that comforts her, but the autonomy she pictures herself having. Thank you for sharing this! 🙂

  2. I love your reading of this film and its creation of a “sensate matrix.” Beautifully written post!

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