Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.
Can a person be born bad or is “badness” a learnt trait, one taught to an impressionable and willing protégée by someone who keenly detects their potential for darkness? This question of nature vs. nurture is the moral quandary presented to us in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013), an unconventional coming-of-age film that is informed by violence, eroticism, a creepy gothic ambience, and heightened sound design in which the piano emerges as a vital player not only on the soundtrack, but diegetically as part of the film’s story.
The film’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), believes that the formation of the self is beyond her control, declaring in the film’s opening monologue that “Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for who we come to be.” Though she may indeed have an innate propensity for the carnal, a blood lust that can only be quelled through the vanquishing of life on hunting trips with her father (Dermot Mulroney), it is the unexpected arrival of India’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a mysterious, yet charmingly erudite character, after the sudden death of her father that leads to India fully embracing her murderous inclinations.
India is initially weary of her Uncle Charlie to the point of impoliteness, suspicious of his sudden appearance in her life, but she is nonetheless intrigued by him. Charlie, too, shows an unhealthy interest in India, and the two engage in a strange flirtation born not only of their homicidal natures, but also of their mutual appreciation of music. Charlie first captures India’s musical attention by whistling the melodic line of “Stride La Vampa,” an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il trovatore. In the aria the singer laments her mother’s death at the stake, vowing vengeance against the Count she deems responsible, a musicological clue that implies that Charlie may have been involved in India’s father’s death. After hearing Charlie whistle the aria’s melody outside her bedroom window as he digs in the garden, India is shown listening to a recording of the aria on the kitchen radio while reading a booked entitled Encyclopedia of Funerals and Mourning. It seems that even as India tries to mourn and engage with her beloved father’s death, her fascination with Charlie cannot be abated and insinuates itself into her grieving process.
Early on in the film we learn that India is an especially refined young woman who plays the piano, and her cool, restrained demeanor belies a deep longing that can be detected when fingertips meet piano keys. After her first encounter with her Uncle Charlie at her father’s funeral, India returns home before guests arrive to attend the wake. She sits at her baby grand piano, playing the beginning of a mournful piece centered on a repetitive three-note motif in the left hand as she recalls Charlie’s distant, almost-menacing silhouette at the cemetery. We hear India play a fragment of this piece again at the piano when Charlie goes out for a shopping excursion with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). In this instance she only plays one bar of the three-note motif accompanied by the enforcing ticks of her metronome before slumping onto the keys. Unable to concentrate, she is preoccupied with her curiosity about her Uncle Charlie and the strange effect he is having on her, and this is further emphasized by Clint Mansell’s (the film’s primary composer) haunting theme for Charlie underscoring the sequence.
As Charlie slowly ingratiates himself into the two women’s lives he becomes a source of sexual desire for both Evelyn and India (though India remains wary of his motives), and courtship takes place on the piano bench. Coming home from school one afternoon soaked in rain water, an already miserable India enters her home to discover Evelyn and Charlie sitting at the piano bench. India looks on with obvious anger at the closeness of their bodies and the flirtation that is taking place. Her piano is a sacred space in which her desires are allowed to take root and it has been compromised by the intrusion of the pair. Evelyn claims that she is giving Charlie a lesson as he is a “complete beginner,” but a later scene in Stoker leads us to believe that this may be yet another one of Charlie’s deceptions.
Stoker’s most climactic moment takes place at India’s piano in a scene that allows us to hear a fully-realized development of the three-note motif heard in the aforementioned scenes. The piece, simply called “Duet” on the film’s soundtrack album, was composed especially for the film by the influential minimalist composer Philip Glass. India has just returned home from school after having stabbed a threatening classmate with her pencil. She sharpens the pencil, reflecting on the violence she has just inflicted, and its bloodied shavings fall upon sheet music lying atop her piano. India’s thoughts simultaneously turn to the body she has discovered in the basement freezer, most likely a victim of Charlie’s, and of her Uncle digging in the yard, and as she does this she plays an unsettling, dissonant harmonic interval three times before moving into the familiar motif.
After a few bars, Charlie appears at her side in secondo, contributing ominous bass octaves in accompaniment before he suddenly moves onto the bench and takes over, performing a new musical idea: a modified, sped-up variation of India’s motif. And so commences their tête à tête on the piano’s keys: India takes his lead, but responds to his menacing bass with staccatoed, jaunty chords that deflect his urgent playing. The music shifts in tone again, gradually becoming more dramatic, and India begins to play a series of Glass’s trademark triplet arpeggios. After a few bars Charlie suddenly puts his arm around India, she inhales sharply, and he takes over the performance of the triplets in the upper register. India’s breath becomes more labored as the piece progresses and reaches its climax, crescendoing before India is finally left to conclude the piece solo with a seemingly unrelated bar at a much softer volume. After collecting herself, India turns to her left to face her melodic sparring partner, but he has disappeared.
Was the duet a wild improvisation between India and Charlie, a form of musical coitus, or had the piece, as well as Charlie’s pianistic abilities, developed in India’s imagination from the earlier motivic seed? Regardless of the audience’s interpretation, India emerges from the duet with a greater awareness of herself, embracing her murderous nature and desires. She no longer requires an instructor. The piano is the catalyst of this formative moment, her metamorphosis from girl to woman and, as she acknowledges in her monologue, “To become adult, is to become free.”