Sound and Classical Cutting in “The Piano” (1993): Campion

Written by: Jenna Moloney

This analysis is based on a scene from the Australian film “The Piano,” written and directed by Jane Campion.  The scene or sequence to be discussed is the scene where Stewart chops off Ada’s finger. This piece was written with the help of the book “Understanding Movies,” written by Louis Giannetti. I highly recommend this book for anyone studying cinema in depth.

The scene begins with Ada sitting at a table, chin in hand, lost in thought. Everything about the scene is normal and calm, until Ada’s eyes go wide. Without seeing what Ada is seeing, we know something is wrong and she is terrified. In this moment, the actress playing Ada (Holly Hunter) is showing “absolute concentration on the truth of a dramatic moment. Giannetti describes this level of acting, saying that “at this close range, any fakery or insincerity in the acting is easily detected” (254), but because she is totally engrossed in fear, the audience is fearfully waiting for something to happen. Sound plays a major factor in this scene as well. As we see Ada’s face turn from calm to terrified in a matter of one second, we also hear a sound effect of a door opening and ricocheting off a wall harshly. We can also hear rain falling now that the door is open, and we hear Ada gasp and even catch a little sound of her voice that we haven’t heard before. The piano music playing in the background is relatively loud and fast, but evokes a sad emotion from the audience: it is a reflection of Ada’s amazing piano-playing skills and foreshadows that she is about to lose her ability to play as well as she has been.

The scene then continues using a basic, classical cutting technique. “Classical cutting involves editing for dramatic intensity and emotional emphasis rather than for purely physical reasons” according to Giannetti (141), and this is exactly the purpose of using it here. The takes are quick, cutting from Ada to Stewart to close-up shots of where his axe is hitting, to a reaction shot of Ada, and the pattern continues. The audience, because of this, is on edge, wondering what’s going to happen and when. The axe is then set down, and Stewart takes the opportunity to grab Ada by the shoulders and shake her. Stewart repeats “I trusted you!” while the loud piano music can still be heard. Stewart then thrusts Ada into the table, causing a spool of thread to fall over. The camera cuts to a close-up of the thread for the purpose of dramatization; the close-up makes the spool of thread seem like a bigger deal and emphasizes it thrashing around across the table, stressing how violent Stewart is being. The sound effect of the thread is very loud- louder than the piano music. The camera cuts back to Stewart and Ada, then shows a very quick close-up of the spool of thread once more. Stewart is yelling, but because he is crying the audience cannot tell what he is saying. As she is being thrust up against the wall, Ada’s eyes are bobbling about in her head; she clearly cannot grasp the situation happening. Stewart pauses for a moment, and the camera does not cut away. He then grabs his axe and Ada’s arm and walks outside.

The camera cuts to Ada’s daughter running toward the house in fear and confusion. The camera cuts and remains on Ada and Stewart as Ada struggles to stay inside the house. There is clearly a blue filter on the camera now, as the outside world looks blue, dreary, cold, and dangerous compared to the safety and warmth of the inside of the house. A few cuts filled with the sound effects of stepping in mud and one long cut of Ada struggling to crawl away and Stewart choking her occur. The camera then, rather than cutting, moves from a close-up of Ada’s hand to a close-up of her face against the tree stump. The camera quickly cuts from Ada’s daughter to Stewart and back before Stewart cuts Ada’s finger off. The piano music abruptly stops as we hear the sound effect of the axe hitting the tree stump and Ada’s daughter screaming is the only thing that can be heard, making the moment more dramatic and powerful. Although nobody in the audience is thinking about the sound of the axe, it cues them as to when her finger is cut off and, in turn, viewers cringe. This is an example of Giannetti’s theory: “moviegoers are not usually consciously aware of how sound affects them, but they are constantly manipulated by the mixer’s synthesis.” (200). The camera never focuses on the bloody finger, but is shown through the mise en scéne of a shot: in the background of a close-up of Ada’s face (showing no emotion). The audience sees the blood spray on Ada’s daughter and when the camera shows a close-up of Ada’s hands, however it never shows the part of the hand where the finger is no longer attached. This adds to the surrealistic element of the scene: the audience is asking, “did that really just happen? Did he really just cut off her finger?” A piano begins to play as background music yet again, but this time so softly that the audience, if not directly focusing on it, may not even notice. The scene concludes with a 37 second shot of Ada looking around; her eyes seem to not be consciously moving. There is dirt all over her face, emphasizing the whiteness of her eyes. She then turns around and stumbles to the ground, gets back up, and continues trying to walk.

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