The sex appeal of Harvey Keitel

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In the landscape of the erotic imagination, no one has quite captured the dirty appeal of Harvey Keitel quite like Jane Campion. Beyond his early upshot roles in Martin Scorsese films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets, where he still had that youthful bounce and that devil’s smile, Keitel’s sex appeal is not quite so obvious. It’s not that he’s ugly or monstrous, but in the hyper-beautified landscape of the Hollywood film industry which often confuses beauty with eroticism, he seems almost ordinary. Campion though has always had a talent of looking beyond beauty and getting to the meat of sexual charisma.

In 1993’s The Piano, Harvey Keitel plays Baines, a retired sailor with a Maori tattoo on his face. He’s windswept and around 45. When Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute, meets him, he’s emerging from the bush as a guide. She wants his help to transport a piano that her husband, Stewart (Sam Neill) wants to get rid of. The attraction between Ada and Baines is not immediate. He is cautious and almost shy. It’s the way that he looks at the world around him that draws Ada and the viewer in.

“My mind is seized on you,” Baines tells Ada in a love confession. He is shy and reluctant, but he looks directly at her as he says it. Campion, rather than cutting to Ada’s reaction immediately though, holds her camera on him long enough for him to smile and clarify, “this is why I suffer.” This extra beat puts more power on the gaze than the object that he’s looking at. When we finally look at Ada, a slow zoom crawling towards her face, he sighs and reluctantly follows through with his confession of tortured longing.

This look means everything and is more than just about sex. It is about obsession and a desire that transcends physical attraction and reaches into spiritual malaise. He cannot eat or sleep, but his gaze is focused. In 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady, John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond looks at Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) with the same intensity. We feel the trouble swirling around him, but he’s transformed by his ability to not merely look but see. In 2003’s In the Cut, Mark Ruffalo looks at Meg Ryan in a way that makes you feel like no one has really seen her before he did.

These are women whose true authentic selves seemed hidden below the surface and are unravelled by a gaze. The intensity of these secret inner lives suddenly being exposed to daylight is the key to Campion’s exploration of erotic sensibilities.

The construction of The Piano’s intense love affair is not built on words. Ada is incapable of speaking, except through music, and Baines is illiterate and uncomfortable talking. When he speaks, he stumbles and apologises. In one scene, he listens as Ada plays the piano in his hut. He watches her intently. Moving to the floor, he watches her feet play and asks her to bring up her dress. She does. He finds a small hole in her black stockings exposing her white skin. His finger, calloused and a little dirty lightly fingers the hole, eliciting pleasure on Ada’s face.

His power comes through not just his gaze but his movements. Like an old tree deep in the forest, he has a stillness and strength that feel as though they could withhold centuries. He works with his hands, and Campion’s intimate camera hints at the contrasts between his calloused skin and his soft touches. The movie would have never worked with a young man or a beautiful one. Keitel, who has somehow acted for twenty-years at this point, has the skin and the body of a man who has only ever worked outside. His physicality implies a lifetime leading up to his first meeting with Ada, full of its own secrets and disappointments.

When he looks on her, we sense that he feels the weight of those experiences driving a wedge between them, though her being married doesn’t help either. Their romance transgresses on the strict expectations of Ada’s life which condemns their love to a kind of spiritual purgatory. Any act of passion within these conditions is a deeply felt transgression against the social order.

Harvey Keitel has always been willing to take off his clothing for a film role. He is among the few mainstream actors willing to do this, but it’s not the nudity itself that is attractive, it is the willingness to be laid bare. His vulnerability and the way he is able to project thought and desire through a look is more to the point. While other directors have taken advantage of his sex appeal before, none did it so thoughtfully as Jane Campion in The Piano.

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