The Attraction of the Pedaling Ankle: The Body as the Voice in The Piano

|Sophie Durbin|

Ada stands in a darkened room with one finger extended toward the camera.

The Piano plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 3rd, through Tuesday, March 5th. Visit for tickets and more information. 

While procrastinating on my research for this piece on The Piano, I decided to learn everything I could about Michael Nyman’s lush original score. The track titles are as romantic and sensual as you’d expect: “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” “The Scent of Love,” “A Wild and Distant Shore,” etc. But I was most intrigued by “The Attraction of the Pedaling Ankle.” In this title, one of the core features of The Piano is revealed. Because the main character is mute, the events of the story aren’t conveyed through speech. This is a tale that is told through touch, through gesture, through scent, through sighs. We can recount it by simply tracking the minute actions of the characters’ bodies: hands, feet, neck, mouth, and, yes, ankles. 

We begin Ada’s journey to New Zealand watching a group of sailors carry her to shore. She grips their hands unsteadily as they struggle through the rough surf. When she and her daughter Flora slog through the muddy bush on the way to their new home with Alasdair Stewart, we see her feet for the first time. She sinks in the mud, swallowed literally by the new environment that will soon engulf the rest of her. For Ada, hands and feet together work as a kind of voice box. On a practical level, they are what propel her through space and allow her to sign. More importantly, it’s through her hands and feet that she plays the piano, which is the far more essential way of expressing herself. In Ada’s brief narration at the beginning of the film, she confides to us: “The strange thing is I don’t think myself silent, that is, because of my piano. I shall miss it on the journey.”

When Baines begrudgingly takes Ada and Flora to the beach, he sees her play piano for the first time. As we heard in the intro, this is the equivalent of her finally opening her mouth to speak after weeks of travel from Scotland. When Baines hears her play, he is quietly smitten. She plays complex melodies in a cascading stream-of-consciousness style; there is an ecstatic expression on her face. But her hands and arms are obscured by the slats of the wooden crate holding the piano. What are the mechanics behind Ada’s distinctive mode of communication? I’m convinced that this is the mystery that sticks with Baines to the point that he devises his elaborate/perverse bartering system to sell Ada her piano back, in which every black key is worth a sexual favor. Blessed with the rare gift of knowing exactly what he wants at all times, Baines manages to trade some land for Ada’s piano and make Stewart think that it’s his own idea to offer Ada’s services as a piano teacher. 

In a scene from the script that doesn’t make the final cut, Ada examines Baines’s hands on her first visit to his hut. She compares her own small, neat hands to his large, coarse ones. Repulsed by the scarring from his tattoos, she requires him to scrub them before laying a finger on the piano. He is slightly redeemed when he gets the instrument professionally tuned, but it’s only after this initial humiliation that he admits to himself that the only way to communicate with Ada is to listen to her play—and the only way to get her to play is to fulfill her requirements. The arrangement forces Ada to take direction from Baines, but he knows that if he doesn’t follow her orders, the deal will be off and he will never hear her “voice” again.

The first time that Baines makes a request worth one of the black keys is when he instructs Ada to lift her skirts. He gets down on the floorboards, nuzzles right up to her ankles, and touches one patch of glowing, exposed calf skin. The specificity of his requests aren’t entirely a product of objectification (though there’s plenty of that). Baines’s obsession has more to do with his desire to understand every inch of her body. As he becomes accustomed to Ada’s verbal silence, Baines learns that her feelings are sublimated through the intricate movements of the rest of her body. This is recognizable to the viewer who can recall what it’s like to carefully catalog every feature of a love interest, from the eyebrows to the nail beds to the arch of the foot. The Allure of the Pedaling Ankle, indeed! 

At first, Ada’s attitude toward Baines is stilted and transactional. She reserves the light, deliberate touch of her hands for the piano alone. When Baines spends a moment alone cleaning the piano naked, it’s the closest he’s gotten to feeling what it’s like to have her hands willingly caress his skin. Finally resigned to believing that Ada does not feel anything for him, Baines has the piano packed up and returned to her. It’s here that he utters my favorite line in the film: “The arrangement is making you a whore and me, wretched.” Ada is taken aback, and it’s easy to feel for her in this moment. But it’s also clear that Baines has realized that by owning the piano, he owns her voice, too. To him, this is wrong. He doesn’t just want to touch her—he wants to communicate. This is why it’s such a joyous moment to him when she flies into a rage after he asks her to leave—this is Ada screaming at the top of her lungs, at him. We never see him more alight with excitement than when he tries to decipher the soft, guttural sighs she lets out after they finally sleep together, which he interprets as a personal signal (take a look at this excerpt from the script, so perfectly brought to life by Keitel and Hunter): 

ADA’s breaths turn to low

murmurs; these small sounds are extraordinarily moving to BAINES whose

face swoons with joy.

A village pantomime of the Bluebeard folktale interrupts the action in the middle of the film. It seems incongruous, but the scene offers a few important clues. The performance foreshadows the painful moment when Stewart cuts off Ada’s finger. Just as Bluebeard’s wives must be silenced for discovering what lies in his chamber, Ada must be silenced too. Stewart and Baines are the inverse of each other: Baines loves Ada for how she communicates, and gives her the piano back; Stewart fears her for the same reason, and in cutting off her finger he removes her expressive connection with the outside world. 

Ada walks across the porch toward Baines with her arms out and a cloth over her head.

In the final moments of the film, Ada nearly drowns with her piano tied by her ankle. When she surfaces, it’s a fairly literal rebirth metaphor—she severs her own umbilical cord and, ultimately, her dependence on the piano for speech. In her new life in Nelson, she begins to relearn how to speak with her voice. It’s significant that she must wear a head covering for this—verbalizing feels like a great exposure. Until now, Ada has had the upper hand in her conversations. Only the most discerning listeners can understand the subtext she conceals in her music and in her hand signals. The prospect of uttering intelligible words means that eventually, the world will hear Ada’s voice devoid of her physicality—and in that, something unique about her may again be silenced. Only Jane Campion could write an ending that is simultaneously so happy, so ambivalent, and so eerily fitting for the story of a woman who, despite her muteness, moves quite loudly through the world. 

Edited by Finn Odum

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