The Piano Teacher
review by Paula Nechak, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

Humiliation, control, madness, power and perception scorch Michael Haneke's implosive The Piano Teacher, which earned best actor and actress prizes for co-stars Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

Rightly so, too. The film relies so diligently upon Huppert's magnetic self-sufficiency and perfunctory pragmatism to alternately draw us in and equally taunt us that it's doubtful we have seen a portrait of disturbing coldness and clarity spew such a mess of emotional disarray, disturbance, disconnection and pain onscreen. Haneke, working from the novel La Pianiste by Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, reaches deep into the shaded, hidden bowels of Huppert's extraordinary talent and emerges with an unforgettable film that literally and viscerally threatens.

In The Piano Teacher, Huppert is Erika Kohut, a cool, autumnally dressed musical genius who teaches at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. By day she pummels her students with clipped verbal assaults designed to tear away confidence and destroy youthful dreams. "A wrong note in Beethoven is better than a bad interpretation," she tells one young man as she stands imperious and disapproving at a window. Erika knows how to hit the most hurtful, fragile places in people, perhaps, as we learn, because she herself has had the same cuts and stabs inflicted upon her.

Despite her acclaim, talent and age, Erika still resides with her widowed mother (Annie Girardot), a nightmare of maternal obsessiveness, possessiveness and accusation. The pair spar and slap, confront and terrorize each other, only to fall into their womb of a bed where they slumber the end of each day away.

By night, however, far from mother's dark and furious clutches, Erika is something else. She patrols tony porno houses, inhaling the flaking semen that soaks the gentleman clientele's disposed kleenex, all while devouring a menu of hard core fare. She creeps up on couples making love at the drive-in, urinating her voyeuristic relief next to the rocking car. And she mutilates her genitals with a razor kept as neatly wrapped as her hair or her own surface emotions, only to be met with a disapproving "that's not very appetizing" from her mother when a rivulet of blood escapes and rolls down her thigh at the dinner table.

Things turn for Erika when Walter Klemmer (Magimel) appears at a recital in which she is performing. He's a tall Aryan speciman, blond and windswept, and after a couple of brisk, contentious interchanges, imagines he's in love with this unattainable woman. At first this wholesome golden boy, obviously aware of his charms and cleverness and quite used to the hunt of seduction and conquest, hardly seems in Erika's league. But her demands, designed to give her maximum control of a sexual liaison, open a Pandora's Box of and Walter's own tricky demons, long percolating, take their place in this roundelay of neurosis and struggle.

Author Jelinek has said that Erika's story "is the bloody consequence of the fact that a woman is not allowed to live if she claims a right that is not hers and that she obtains only in the rarest of cases: artistic fame. The right to choose a man and to dictate how he tortures her - that is, domination in submission - this she is not permitted." If she initially begins as Walter's tormentor she ends as her own, and as women have done throughout history - unlike their male counterparts who have external outlets in which to vent self-loathing and agony - turns her impotence inward.

Many have stated that they feel little compassion for this monster of a woman but within her - and so extraordinarily unfolded by Haneke and Huppert - is the result of her own emotional abuse. Who is the victim here? It's hard to tell. The shapes and roles shift and sway, victim and aggressor wear different cloaks at every act. But Haneke gives us, in several instances, Huppert's face in extreme close-up; she listens to her beloved music and with slight, minutely visible flickers, tell us tomes about her life, her repression, pain and immature sexual fantasy, the frustration and unbridled rage at those who wait to usurp her seat in the world of musical academia or in Walter's arms. Her ability to wound those who threaten her is within her immediate, childish reach makes her less monster than irretrievably damaged goods, and Huppert revels in the ultimate act of Erika's inevitable humiliation with skinned and raw honesty.

Haneke has accomplished what, perhaps only the French director Claude Chabrol has done with Huppert's sturdy, durable waifishness (though she's got an adept sense of timing in, not surprisingly, dark comedy) because he also mines the wit in her aloofness. She was a mysteriously humorous presence in Hal Hartley's Amateur and added much to Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon and while lately has worked with Benoit Jacquot, she's made films with two of my favorite directors, Francois Ozon and Olivier Assayas, who have an innate feel for women characters. And though people rarely think of her having a sense of humor it's indisputable that she has a great sense of irony. When Huppert is stranded in the soap operatics of, say, Diane Kurys' Love After Love, we hardly believe she'd give up control for an everyday affair and at least, not in the traditionally mundane and formulaic film female fashion. In her self-containment she needs an outlet that fringes on the perverse and Chabrol - in films like La Cérémonie, Violette Nozière and Une Affaire des Femmes - and now Haneke, who also mines much humor in his dark tale - have given her the space to roam this elusive, complex, pathological terrain. It's a performance that cannot be shied away from, nor ignored, and in its truth it churns our stomachs with its ugliness and beauty. Like love it both attracts and repulses.

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