The Difficult Second Album: Catching Up with THE PIANO and FRIDA

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Planned or otherwise, the recent Blu-ray releases of The Piano and Frida reveal all sorts of thematic/aesthetic connections between the two films and—most importantly—their directors, Jane Campion (The Piano) and Julie Taymor (Frida).  Two of the current cinema’s most prominent female directors, Campion and Taymor shared a kind of synchronicity in their sophomore theatrical features (note:  The Piano counts as Campion’s true second film, despite the presence of 1990’s An Angel at My Table.  While the earlier film received a theatrical release, it first found life as an Australian TV miniseries), despite a time difference of ten years.

Dig it: though Campion made her full-length film debut with 1987’s Sweetie, she’d already become a darling of the Australian independent film community with short films like “Peel” and “Passionless Moments” as well as her television work on “Dancing Days” and “Two Friends.”  In that same light, Taymor came to 1999’s Titus armed with accolades from her stage work on productions such as Oedipus Rex, The Magic Flute, and The Lion King.

These women then used their first films to simultaneously affirm and demolish the expectations that their critics/supporters previously held.  Sweetie contains Campion’s gift for capturing subtle human nuances; the film is also vibrant and disturbing and loaded with psychosexual excesses.  Titus evinces Taymor’s willingness for bold reinvention, but it does so on a scale found only in the movies—if nothing else, Titus is the only film I can think of to successfully meld Roman epics, sci-fi dystopianism, and Tarantino-esque bloodletting.  The two features seem pretty outré until one considers that Campion and Taymor are merely acting in the manner of such screen luminaries as Orson Welles, Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, Danny Boyle, and François Truffaut; to wit, when you make that first movie, you swing for the fences.

Second movie is a different story.  Second movie—much like the second song on a great album/mix tape—slows things down.  You got the audience’s attention on Track 1, and now you demonstrate your command of the medium.  For Campion, this second song was 1993’s The Piano.  A haunting, spare love story about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) adjusting to the realities of her arranged marriage, the film might as well be a four-character play; it is almost claustrophobically focused on leads Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin.  Taymor, on the other hand, looked to that most conventional of screen genres—the biopic—to help shake up her image, as 2002’s Frida jettisoned Titus‘s violent excesses for the vibrant story of acclaimed artist Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek).  Critics and audiences alike responded to these films’ more restrained charms, as The Piano won three Academy Awards (including acting honors for Hunter and Paquin as well as for Campion’s original screenplay) and Frida won two (and was nominated for four more, including Hayek’s lead performance).

Yet when I rewatched The Piano and Frida, I found them just as unconventional and aggressive as Campion and Taymor’s previous works.  The Piano is a deeply bizarre movie; ignoring Neill’s relentlessly unsympathetic work (a real shock to someone mostly familiar with his hero parts in Dead Calm and Jurassic Park) and the fact that Hunter speaks only in voiceover narration (as odd an aesthetic choice as I can imagine) the graphically sexual relationship between Hunter and Keitel jars more than anything in Sweetie did—it’s the exploration of self reduced to primal elements.

And Frida!  Oh, Frida.  Taymor directs the film the way Kahlo might have painted it, alternating between hyper-stylized narrative elements, special effects animations, and outsized dramatic turns (the most vibrant being Alfred Molina’s brilliant Diego Rivera).  The film floods the senses, and while some of Taymor’s excesses don’t quite pay off—her stunt casting distracts from Kahlo’s story, as you’re constantly breaking from the film’s reality to note, “Hey!  There’s Antonio Banderas, or Geoffrey Rush, or Ashley Judd, or Edward Norton”—she succeeds in visceralizing the creative mind.

But you don’t notice these perversions the first time around, and it’s a testament to how good both Campion and Taymor can be.  They are so skilled at couching their obsessions and fetishes in the familiar—The Piano’s period gloom, Frida‘s biopic framework—that the films maintain the illusion of accessibility.  Campion and Taymor are into expanding our collective consciousness, and we were none the wiser.

Lionsgate’s Blu-rays tend to favor the Frida side of the equation.  The Piano has a decent-but-unspectacular HD transfer, a solid 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and a trailer.  That’s it.  Frida, by comparison, is loaded, with a lush 1080p picture, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, and a stacked supplemental package that includes seven exceedingly thorough behind-the-scenes featurettes, two visual effects breakdowns, commentary with Taymor (plus two more Taymor-centric interviews), and a conversation with Salma Hayek.  I realize Lionsgate was working from the previously available Miramax materials, but some more Piano-related insights would have been greatly appreciated.

Still, we have the movies in Blu-ray.  For some, that will be enough.

The Piano and Frida are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s page listings.

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