Previous to sitting through this, for me the above accolade had been held for a good decade by Jacques Tati for his yawning two-hour 1967 muse Playtime, but even that has held a strange fascination for me down the years, if I'm honest. You know, it was so bad it was goo… well, no, that really was brain-hammeringly awful.
But then this morning I discovered The Piano, and that's so bad that I don't even have a synonym for it. And, impressively, it's all down to one single component - the script, which manages to single-handedly unweigh any good at all that the rest of the roles can do.
This two-hour man-bashing rant about a group of uniformly horrible grotesques opens with a child's narration. She explains that she is not a child but a mute adult, because having chosen to stop talking at six years old (for reasons never explained), this is her internal monologue that she is speaking to us through.
Err... how? I mean I get first-person narration - they're obviously talking to a second character at a later date - but this? Does she become telepathic?
Somewhere along the way she's grown up and had a daughter, and years after that somehow been given into an arranged marriage to a man who she's never met in another country - specifically New Zealand. Again, her motivation for going along with this, let alone his for sending overseas for a bride who he's never met, and has a daughter from a previous relationship, and has a disability, is never made clear. I suppose true love must cross all borders.
What is made deafeningly clear though is her attachment to her piano, although yet again, despite all her new husband's best efforts to make a good first impression, he inexplicably fails to register this. Upon his very first meeting her after she has been dropped off with her belongings on a deserted beach, despite her written, signed and interpreted protests, he insists upon leaving it behind on the sand to the elements. Again, no motivation at all for his ignorance of this woman's feelings in the face of his very attempts to win them.
In fact, he spends the entire film trying to win her over, but paradoxically cannot get this one obviously most important thing right, even despite the evidence of her simply having brought it all this way with her, and told him. He promises to go back to the beach for it, but then just doesn't. There's likewise no mention of why they don't even move it away from the water's edge to keep it drier. Does the tide come in and ruin it? Well I have to assume so, except that it remains in near-perfect condition, and tune, for most of the rest of the film.
Well, perhaps the moviemakers all want us all to hate this fellow, the heartless brute. But as mentioned, he likes her and wants to win her, so such brutishness cannot be the reason for his throwaway excuses.
Mind you, he is the sort of person who organises a wedding photograph to be taken, complete with studio background, outside in the pouring rain. Again, I have as much idea why he does this as he does that she loves the piano that she's so obviously upset about.
Soon he finds her at home miming playing a piano on an ordinary table, and he still cannot fathom why. It's a completely left-field event for him. He appears to have no memory whatsoever of the thing! We're half an hour into the movie now, and all hope of believing in these characters is gone. Next he even trades her abandoned piano away!
So one of his associates (who is secretly cheating him) gets the piano, and begins emotionally blackmailing the poor girl into sexual favours in return for getting her own piano back. Yes, she willingly prostitutes herself for the piano. Again, we're never told why she has to have this particular piano, as opposed to any other. However she in return emotionally blackmails him, raising the price of her favours making him more and more miserable. She does this with her young daughter just outside the house, it never occuring to her that the child might just peep in and see.
Presently her husband catches them having sex and, rather than confront them, contents himself to initially watch them through the wall, and then… crawl under the house to spy on them through the floorboards instead? Yes, really.
Presently his indignation does manifest itself though, and he tries to rape her, foolishly attempting to do so outdoors in the broad daylight of a public space, rather than in bed at their home.
Worst of all, she falls in love with the weirdo who's been forcing her to have sex with him in return for getting her beloved piano back. Yes, she falls in love with one of the two men who have been sexually abusing her. (there are barely any other men in this film) She even breaks off a central key of her piano to tell him so by writing on the side of it. While this demonstrates both his comparative importance to her and the paradoxical end of their manipulative 'piano lessons', obviously her precious instrument won't really work after that, but I bet her notepad still does. Let's hope she isn't planning on writing him a dissertation.
The first guy, although not really that riled by her sexual unfaithfulness, does lose his temper at this revelation though, and punishes her by cutting her finger off with an axe right in front of her daughter, even though as mentioned above the piano she would have played with it is now fairly useless.
She eventually leaves on a row boat with her daughter, the weirdo she's fallen in love with, and the piano which the boat supports the weight of with the realism of a cartoon by Terry Gilliam. At this point, again for no explained reason, she tries to commit suicide by drowning, again right in front of both her lover and her poor long-suffering daughter.
The bottom line here is that her young daughter is the one and only character in here who is not perfectly hideous. Even the local Maoris are portrayed as so primitive and stupid as to not understand what a shadow is, invading a theatrical stage thinking the acting to be real. Any Maoris here in the audience tonight? Hey - great to see you - everything in this moving picture is real too.
As I indicated above, the script is really my only problem with this film. The direction - by the same person - offers some inspired camera-angles that really made me feel like I was there. The acting is good all round, particularly Anna Paquin as the child, and Sam Neill as the disconnected husband character - there's so much going on on his face. The brief second of animation I will groan at and wave on past. Dropping into animation wasn't so common in 1993.
But the script lets the whole thing down so hugely that there is simply no reason to watch any of this. It gives us an entire main cast of horrible characters, being horrible to each other, in a horrible place, for no apparent reason.
Why would anyone pay money to watch this miserable unpleasantness? People whose lives are just too happy to bear, and need a break from all the joy?
The ending is ambiguous, offering either one of two conclusions in which she lives or dies, in each case fantasising the opposite. Well, that's how I interpreted it.
Whichever conclusion is canon, here's hoping that her poor distraught daughter doesn't go the same way.
By my calculations, this is the 357th film that I have reviewed on this blog, and on a scale of 357, with 1 as the best film and 357 as the worst, for me this comes in at 357th.
What's that? But you've seen this film and found it beautiful? Then I'm happy for you, I honestly am. It's only a movie that we both disagree upon, and our diversity is one of the things that makes life so brilliant.
Can I interest you in the works of Jacques Tati?
(available to those with more charitable hearts than I here)