When it comes to piano scenes in movies I go for the kind that are keen to dismantle the homey myths that surround the instrument. In and around the seemingly impregnable bunker of the living room, emotional implosions and explosions make for good cinema.
As the most memorable keyboard moments of the cinema demonstrate, it is seething disquiet and animosity that the celluloid piano should unmask. When Jack Nicholson’s malcontent character in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces of 1970 sits down at the family Steinway in the music room of their mansion on a damp Puget Sound island, he is intent to use his musical talent to seduce his brother’s girlfriend. As the cad makes his way through Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, the camera moves from his impassive face to scan the expanse of the piano’s wooden case, the womans hand and face, and then the walls of the music room thick with photos of the clan’s glorious musical past.
Ashes are sown in this marvelously bleak scene when Nicholson admits—or rather brags—that he felt nothing during those two minutes of apparently intense emotion that had so moved the female object of his desire. He tells her that he chose the piece because it was the easiest one he knew and that had been playing it since he was eight-years-old and that he played it a lot better back then. This cynicism scuppers his own efforts to bed the girlfriend. The arctic cool of the admission contrasts with the apparent profundity of the performance. Rafelson’s staging of the visionary prelude counts not just as first-rate movie-making, but as trenchant aesthetic commentary on the way Chopin has appropriated the clichés of sentimental pianism—a melody soaring above throbbing repeated chords—not to indulge feeling but to shred the fireside comforts: it is tragedy not redemption that elevates the prelude to masterpiece status.
Chopin seems to bring out these home-wrecking impulses in the best directors. In Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata of 1978, Ingrid Berman takes the role of concert pianist long-absent as a mother and grandmother. She listens disapprovingly to daughter Liv Ullmann’s performance of Chopin’s “Prelude in A Minor” then bumps her out of the way on the piano bench and delivers a short lecture on the true meaning of the piece: “Chopin was emotional, but not mawkish,” mother informs daughter. “Feeling is very far from sentimentality. The prelude tells of pain not reverie.” Mom then performs the piece so as to inflict as much possible emotional damage on her daughter. Romantic piano music blasts a giant crater in the Family Romance.
For similar reasons I would have endorsed Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), in which Holly Hunter’s male-ordered bride shipped from England to the Antipodes is deposited on those fatal shore along with her square piano. Later on, she and her lover Harvey Keitel literally dismantle the ivories of this symbol of bourgeois decorum. Michael Nyman’s score was charged with sonically representing this sexual liberation. Performed by Hunter herself at the piano, the aimless effusions of the multi-platinum soundtrack evoked not a freed bird (caged parrots and other avian singers were often pictured next to women at their keyboards in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraiture), but the death throes of a sun-drunk fly trapped between window panes.
After spotting Chinese classical—and sometime crossover—star Lang Lang’s name given special billing on the movie poster, I was eager to see how the piano would figure in Coming Home, the latest offering from celebrated Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. The film reunites Yimou with his greatest star, Gong Li; together the two form one of the ultimate pairings in the history of world cinema. Both gained international recognition in Red Sorghum (1987), their first collaboration and the first important movie for each of them. A series of wonderful films followed up through the Imperial period-piece Curse of the Golden Flower of 2006.
As the 1930s gangster’s girlfriend and nightclub chanteuse of Shanghai Triad (1995), Gong Li was the glittering jewel of the film’s luminous glamor and dark violence. Music and its absence were handled with deft mastery by Yimou: the set-piece show tunes in which Gong Li shone basked in the allure of Western decadence but were rendered by Yimou with a magnificent formalism that exoticized these seductive and destructive European-American cultural imports.
The long closing shot of the movie proceeds with no music whatsoever. The camera assumes the first-person perspective of the lowly teenage character whose fate we follow throughout the movie. He is hung from his feet, and this world-turned-upside-down seems to present an unblinking view of another triad: that of greed, violence, and corruption. By analogy, this view also appears to offer an indictment of the Chinese Communist Party.
In spite of its detailed, often devastating realism, Yimou’s Coming Home is an allegorical tale of the Cultural Revolution. With great subtlety and purpose, the film examines the crushingly painful textures of family life: the dilemmas brought on by the cataclysm; the devastation it wrought; and the impossibilities of retrieving what was taken and lost.
The symbols of Western influence remain. The teenage daughter in the film, herself blinded by her own ambition and communist indoctrination, is a promising ballerina—a practitioner of the form of dance that is the very symbol of European monarchs from the Sun King to the Russian Czars. But in Mao’s China ballet has been converted into militarized choreography: the dancers either carry guns or wield limbs like steel weapons. Their pointe shoes stab the proletarian stage like bayonets.
Bereft at the removal of her husband to a work farm for reeducation, Gong Li’s character has lost her memory. When her husband is finally released at the end of Cultural Revolution in 1976 she does not recognize him. The husband consults a doctor, who tells him that sometimes the memory can be retrieved with recourse to certain images or activities from the past. Enter the piano, that ultra-European symbol of home. The instrument is the title character, heard throughout, even if it plays onscreen in only one scene.
The couple’s upright gathers dust in the spare, but quite large apartment. Even in Chinese cinema the domestic interiors have an appeal that seems to have been cut from the pages of real estate supplement.
The piano, now as decrepit as Gong Li’s once-gorgeous character, is evidence of the cultural interests that had branded the husband a reactionary. He will now enlist it to reanimate his wife’s memory.
He learns (or perhaps re-learns) how to tune the piano by reading an old pamphlet. Since his wife does not recognize him, he poses as the piano technician and pulls the instrument back into shape. Here is the clearest evidence that the film inhabits the world of allegory: you cannot tune a piano with pliers.
Once the husband has finished the job, he remains at the keyboard and plays a simple tune as nostalgic as anything Schumann every dreamt up, though here it is dressed in pentatonic garb by the soundtrack’s composer Qigang Chen. Long resident in France, Chen boasts impressive commissions and modernist bonafides as the last student of Oliver Messiaen. These credentials apparently give him clearance to serve up the schlockiest piano stuff this side of Love Story. From the soundtrack Lang Lang caresses the keys of a big black Steinway in a fully-loaded studio. Gong Li enters the apartment and is momentarily lost in reverie. The China Philharmonic wafts in. And you ask yourself if a movie this good can survive a soundtrack this bad.