Deirdre Condon Wyeth
May 20, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

At the end of The Piano, Ada recites, ”There is a silence.” Yeah, that’s the sound most men make after watching the movie. Few films have been so filled with situations, imagery, and words that resonate deeply with women-but leave a lot of men baffled. A semi-semiotic guide:

1. The subtext. A blindness to what is being hidden by surface appearances: bad; an ability to delve beneath surfaces: good.

2. Alisdair Stewart as villain. The muttonchops and greasy hair would be enough, but women know Stewart is truly clueless when one of the first things he says to Ada is, ”You’re small.”

3. George Baines as hero. Susan Faludi, meet Robert Bly. George Baines has Maori tattoos and is illiterate: He’s Primitive Man. His lack of socialization makes it easier for him to break through the surface (bad) to get to know Ada (good).

4. Ada as a mute. It’s an act of defiance, first against her father and then against the whole male-dominated world she lives in.

5. Ada’s hairdo. Women need only a second to know these things about her: (a) she’s a perfectionist; (b) she appreciates beauty; (c) emotionally, this woman’s wound tighter than the springs in a Sealy Posturepedic.

6. The keyboard carved into a table. Although Ada can hear the music she plays on a fake piano, Stewart begins to think she’s psychotic. Any woman who wasn’t sure before, now knows the guy’s hopeless.

7. Flora as angel. A girl never stops hearing, ”You’re an angel,” ”What an angel,” ”Be an angel.” Boys will be boys, but when girls are bad, they seem horrid, because they’re being compared to supernatural beings. It’s the first of many double standards most women encounter, so when Flora betrays her mother while wearing wings, it hits hard.

8. Full-frontal male nudity. It’s exciting, not erotic. Ada’s father sold her to Stewart, but in her relationship with Baines she gets to play as an equal. Baines’ nakedness ups the ante in their high-stakes game. Anyway, isn’t it a pleasant change to have a man perform the gratuitous nude scene?

9. Dumping the piano. During the movie, it evolves into a symbol of Ada’s servitude. Time for the old heave-ho. But it can’t be left on the beach — no, it has to go Beneath the Surface.

10. The finger excision. Stewart is subconsciously trying to Bobbittize her, but though she’s shocked — not to mention in shock — she can’t be castrated.

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