Bright Lights Film Journal

Perverse Pianists: How They Do It

“Aldridge’s shoot is so striking because it purports to discover glamour in the mind of an unhinged woman: an associative path that has been cut by cinema.”

An editorial in the March 2010 issue of Italian Vogue shows a stiff young woman in a series of diaphanous gowns. That she is both icy and delicate can be seen by the cluster of small gems at her wrists and throat. But something is amiss: this porcelain woman has tiny furrows in her brow. A dainty version of heartache plays on her face, giving her a slight flush, although her skin is blasted with light to look hard and opaque. Everything else in the shoot — a coffee cup, a fresh manicure, a large pink jewel — is of the same bright, brittle texture.

For some reason, it comes as no surprise that the woman is a pianist. In the next few pages, she will embark on a series of increasingly deranged acts with her young students: seizing them by the chin, manoeuvring them primly into place, and leaning provocatively against a little girl in her thin dress. In a climactic, two-page shot, she throws her head back in anguish, overcome by the full force of playing.

Like so many films, this shoot centres on a “perfect” young woman who has become strange in her introversion. Its title, “High Glam,” is deliberately misleading. Photographer Miles Aldridge is not drawing on the full spectrum of Hollywood glamour, but instead focusing on a peculiarly narrow strain. Looking at the shoot, we recall the history of perverse pianists onscreen: in terms of the recent The Piano Teacher (2001), but also the piano as Hollywood’s signifier of romantic obsession in the ’40s.

For such a specific trope, the disturbed pianist has a surprisingly venerable history: The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Night Song (1947), and perhaps the closest model for this layout, Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952). Like “High Glam,” Angel Face is about a princess with a secret sadness that turns homicidal. Her small pixie face, untouched by desire for most of the film, becomes monstrous and engulfing. The critic Judith Williamson has pointed out that the lead actress, Jean Simmons, is “very much a face”: her facial structure imposes itself as an uncanny, distinct entity in every scene, arresting the hero even though he has only a fleeting attraction to her.

The model used in this shoot, Toni Garrn, is also very much a face. We’re barely conscious of this woman’s body because of the fine little marks of stress carved between her brows. At all times she is edgy and perfectionist; for all her talent, she is unable to relax and leans despondent against the keyboard, nursing private grudges.

Why a piano? Like the spiral staircase, the piano is a romantic device with some strangeness to it. It has a number of peculiarities that can be exploited for melodrama. A piano enables characters to interact across and around its sounds; they can approach each other from different angles, chords, sections. It can be a signifier for emotional range, as players shift up and down a tone or scale. Over the course of a film, the performance of idle or rote exercises may reach heights of single-minded and wilful passion. (It is surprising that pianos do not feature more heavily in Leave Her to Heaven, 1945, even though that film and its orchestration are in thrall to a maniacal heroine.) The physical structure of the piano allows for much swooning around its frame, as in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). There tends to be a lot of bravura activity around the keyboard: as a pianist grows more and more involved, the romantic swelling around the image becomes diegetic. Finally, it is the movement associated with pianos that lends itself to an unbalanced intensity: the subtle, quiet fingering that builds to a thrashing momentum.

Aldridge’s shoot is so striking because it purports to discover glamour in the mind of an unhinged woman: an associative path that has been cut by cinema. An increasingly sophisticated trend in fashion is the expansion of a movie or media image into a multi-page editorial. The trigger can be an obscure film reference, a news story, or a reality that’s gritty and commonplace: the more unlikely the better. In the past few years we’ve seen fashion interpretations of Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002), an exploration of backstage life on a film resembling Brokeback Mountain (2005), and a re-enactment of American Idol, which treats the histrionics of that show as a carnival of the bizarre. There have been a number of recent editorials that romanticise the “downsizing” of executives as a new form of minimalism. In 2008, US Harper’s Bazaar even turned the Eliot Spitzer affair into a high-fashion event, with supermodel Eva Herzigova touchingly inhabiting the role of the wronged wife.

What does it mean to have so many disparate events being modelled in this way? On the one hand, it is as if such specific, real-world issues — political scandals, masterpiece films, individual distress and frustration — exist only to be played out as fashion references, with diverse subjects reduced to the same level of cliché. But there is also a touch of subversion in the replaying and retelling of topical events, often introducing new images, subplots, and endings into the mix. At a time when shows like Saturday Night Live fail to nail the satirical content of political life, these magazines do it under the guise of fashion publicity.

Often this involves a breathtakingly quick processing of current affairs, reclaiming news as fashion influence and inspiration. At its best, this can be a gesture of wit and defiance, akin to the making of “topical” and daily dresses out of newspaper cuttings, in that the headlines of the day are woven into a “timeless” fashion image.

When it comes to using a film as influence, high-fashion photography tends to zero in on a singular, idiosyncratic moment and rework that scenario again and again. This effectively turns the specialized into the iconic: an extreme case of personality that was intended only for the world of cinema is padded out into a liveable universe.

Aldridge’s work convinces us that the strain of being a beautiful virtuoso is such a towering myth that it deserves its own campaign. He captures the quality of sexualized oddity shared by Simmons in Angel Face and Isabelle Huppert in The PianoTeacher — which the shoot claims to find not only rich and strange but enviable. It is this combination of aspirational glamour and private hell that Vogue distils down to a series of ideal images.