Criterion Corner: The Piano (#1110)

I first saw The Piano at the cinema in 1993, when it originally came out. The film felt intense and erotic and physical. It felt adult – though, looking back, I’m surprised by how many films I’d seen as a child and teenager that I’d consider adult. Not because of nudity or sex, although they definitely featured those – I’m thinking of the likes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor -, but because of the characters and themes, and because they were more than happy to leave things unsaid. They were ambiguous. Certainly, I also spent the ’90s watching things like Aliens and Die Hard and Jurassic Park, and I enjoyed those (though I never loved Jurassic Park, which always felt like a more family-friendly Jaws to me, and Jaws should never be family-friendly) – but where these now feel familiar, like cinematic comfort food, The Piano still has that strange intimacy that is both thrilling and discomforting.

We recently talked about The Piano on our podcast, together with Jane Campion’s 2021 hit The Power of the Dog, and I don’t want to say that much more about the film as a film in this post. What I want to talk about is the Criterion disk, and especially its new 4K restoration. In mid-2021, Criterion announced that it would start issuing select films in a UHD, 4K version – which, in the most pedestrian terms, means more pixels. (It also means other things, but this is the most obvious improvement over vanilla Blu-ray films.)

Now, I’m as excited by pixels as the next man (nudge nudge, wink wink), but I’d not really seen any 4K versions of film at home that really bowled me over. We have a reasonably large TV, and we don’t sit half a mile away from it, but the films I’d watched in 4K format – mainly big blockbusters with big visuals – didn’t look all that different from the regular Blu-ray versions, as far as I could tell. Same with 4K streaming: these films and series looked nice, but they had already looked nice before. (Obviously streaming and the compression that comes with it also reduces the sheer megapixel sharpness, so a 4K film streamed off of Netflix or Disney+ wouldn’t look as crisp as the UHD disk equivalent.)

So, I thought that the whole 4K thing was either not all it was cracked up to be, or perhaps my eyes just weren’t good enough. I still thought I’d give Criterion a chance to convince me of the opposite, because if there’s anything Criterion does, it’s great disks with wonderful restorations. I was there for their first UHD release, Citizen Kane, and while I’ve not rewatched the first film, I was indeed struck by the image quality. Which sounds like I’m again veering towards mention of pixel counts and resolution, but that’s not really it: the image was crisp, it had depth, it came to life. The film looked gorgeous, rich, fresh.

Fast-forward to Criterion’s 4K release of The Piano. I’d bought the film on various media: VHS tape (I even got Holly Hunter to sign that particular copy), DVD, regular Blu-ray. Films from the ’90s often have a soft, strangely vague look in releases, and smaller, more art-house films doubly so; I suspect there often isn’t the money to give these films a do-over, though at times I felt that perhaps many films of the time simply had this gauzy aesthetic. Perhaps they’d looked like that on the cinema screen.

Around the time that I started preparing for the Jane Campion podcast, the best cinema in the world (AKA the REX Bern) showed The Piano, not in digital format but off 35mm reels. Now, this will probably result in the Cinema Police turning up on my doorstep and asking me to hand in my cinephile membership card, but I’ve never really been all that fond of film played off reels, at least not compared to a good restoration in digital format. I love cinema, but the physicality of the medium was never what made cinema for me (except perhaps for the clattering of the reels, although I don’t think I ever heard that at a cinema, just as a sound effect in movies or podcast intros). In other words, and you may want to ready the smelling salts: Reader, I skipped the showing of The Piano on 35mm.

Instead, I watched the film at home, in Criterion’s 4K version. Obviously, there is a big difference between the dark, magical space that is a cinema and a living room, even with the lights switched off – but Criterion’s restoration had a potent magic of its own. The softness of the image that I was expecting was absent, but it’s not like the film was digitally crisp instead. No, the effect that the image had on me was one of immense physicality: Campion, together with her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, fashioned a film that is richly textured, and on the Criterion release these textures have a striking tactility. Tree bark, human skin, the fabric of clothes and curtains, the omnipresent New Zealand mud: they take on a reality that the more vague, gauzy visuals of the other versions I’d seen, simply didn’t have. Similarly, The Piano works beautifully with light: the sunlight filtered through clouds and tree leaves, the pre-electric lighting of candles, the fairytale blue-green realm underneath the ocean’s surface. These too looked and felt more natural, more physical, in the restoration than any technical talk of pixel counts would suggest.

Obviously there’s more to a good Criterion release than visual quality, and The Piano has a rich selection of supplementary materials. But for me it is the restoration, supervised and approved by Campion and Dryburgh, that makes this disk special. I’m sure it is also beautiful in regular Blu-ray format, but it is Criterion’s The Piano in 4K that, more than any number of VFX-heavy Star Wars instalments or even the UHD nature documentaries by BBC, have shown me that resolution and pixel counts can be far, far more than just tech talk and masturbatory number games.

P.S.: And one more thing that speaks for these UHD releases: differently from DVD and Blu-ray, they are region-free.

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