Songs on Screen: The Genius of ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from ‘The Piano’

Songs On Screen: All week HitFix will be featuring tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here. 

I was 12 years old when “The Piano” came out, arguably several years too young to see it (slash every inch of Harvey Keitel) at the arthouse cinema in my neighborhood, but then, my Dad went to Berkeley. I remember three things about the movie: (1) acting completely disinterested in the hot sex for my parents” benefit while stealthily crossing my legs as tightly as I possibly could in my seat  (2) instantly becoming obsessed with Anna Paquin because she was around my age and all actresses around my age became objects of my intense envy and encyclopedic research, and (3) Michael Nyman”s piano score from the famous beach scene.

“The Heart Asks Pleasure First” (or “The Promise,” as Napster called it in 2001 when I first illegally downloaded the piece during the emotional turmoil of midterms and rediscovered my obsession) is a transcendent piece of music both inside and outside the context of the film for which it was written. Why else would I remember it – and the scene it scored – so vividly? I mean, it”s not like “The Piano” is my favorite movie. Watch it again: it feels pretty 90s.

But the song does a few things at once. It carries you on a journey that mirrors the way it feels to be in the ocean – its tempo and intensity vary like the sea itself. It”s calm, then it rolls, then it crashes, then it slowly pulls you in like an undertow. It”s stunning. And tonally, it perfectly evokes the image of a grey, foggy, depressing beach with heavy wet clouds overhead. Which happens to be my favorite kind of beach. The kind of beach that fosters maudlin horizon-staring and existential meditation. Inconveniently, the beaches of Los Angeles do not offer me this opportunity: I can”t hear myself ruminate here. The volleyball games are just too loud. In any case, a few bars of this piece and I”m transported to some cold, craggy shore in a country I”ve never had the pleasure of visiting. One where people still wear petticoats and style their hair in those weird dog-ear braids like Holly Hunter had. One whose sad beauty renders one mute (sorry, I had to).

Author”s note: I thought that was going to be the end of my little essay but then I rewatched the beach scene a few minutes ago on Youtube and my mind was f–king blown by something that happens in the piece onscreen, but not in the recording I have been listening to for the past 14 years.

As you can see, the filmmaking is as breathtaking as the score. Every single frame of this scene could be an iconic oil painting as aesthetic and music collude to present us with a palette of emotions and story threads. Mother and daughter spot the piano on the beach, partners in crime. Holly Hunter plays mid-piece, closing her eyes and bowing her head as the phrase becomes more emotional – the purest expression of sadness and regret for her mistakes there could possibly be. Then there”s Harvey Keitel circling her in a sunhat so ridiculous it”s the kind of thing I would definitely laugh at if not for the music somehow convincing me that the moment, Harvey Keitel, and his cranky stare are all incredibly erotic.

On the other end of the spectrum, this piece also – ironically – captures the innocence of youth. There is something about the juxtaposition of the incredibly dramatic, serious melody and watching Anna Paquin dance around the beach the way kids do when they”re pretending to be “fancy,” like elegant ballet dancers, that feels painfully authentic to youth. To her being as full of life as her mother is burdened by it. Okay then came the part that floored me:

THE ENTIRE F–KING PIECE BECOMES DIEGETIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MONTAGE. As mother and daughter start playing it together on her piano, it becomes a duet between them and producing this piece becomes part of the action of the scene. This piece scored the consciousness of the entire scene and everyone in it. All at once. It”s a moment perfectly, surgically executed by director Jane Campion in a level of collaboration between director and composer that is awe-inspiring, not to mention massively inspiring to me as a director. But it”s not about me.

Except it sort of is in that I was asked to name my favorite piece of movie music. There you have it. In five minutes, I will get in my car and sit in L.A. freeway traffic for an hour. On the heels of writing this, I will invariably listen to “The Promise” and feel all the things aforementioned. So if you see some girl in a grey Prius in tears, or filled with youthful joie de vivre, or beset with tragic hopelessness, or looking slightly aroused, don”t be afraid to say hi.

Susanna Fogel is a screenwriter and director whose feature film, “life partners,” was released by magnolia pictures in 2014. She is also the cocreator and executive producer of the television series “Chasing Life,” now entering its second season on Abc Family, and a humorist whose comedic essays have appeared in the New Yorker. Her first book of satirical essays will be published by Henry Holt/Macmillan in 2017.