Directed by Michael Haneke
Written by Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
With Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot and Benoit Magimel
Distributed by Kino International
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) may not be a Nazi, but she’s a deeply troubled woman. Working as a piano teacher, she’s a petty tyrant towards her students, pounding the classical repertoire into their heads and hands and choosing every opportunity to berate them. (At her worst, she puts broken glass into a competitor's jacket pocket in order to give herself the chance to perform at a recital.) At home, she seems utterly affectless and confused. Well into her 40s, she still lives with her equally oddball mother (Annie Girardot.) She begins experimenting sexually, intrigued by the sight of one of her students reading a porno mag and starts watching pornography herself. When she awkwardly attempts to seduce one of her students, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), disaster ensues.
For a director who’s often raged against the manipulations of Hollywood (and described his first three films as a reaction against American cinema), Haneke is as gifted a puppetmaster as Steven Spielberg. He’s just more overt about it and does it differently. Rather than tugging at the heartstrings through sappy music, Haneke likes to use sound design and camera movement to relegate violence offscreen, although he still depicts it obsessively. (He may be right in describing this is as a moral approach than showing it directly, but it’s still button-pushing.) His long takes create an uncomfortable air of reality, creating the impression that a bystander could walk in at any time. CODE UNKNOWN contained one of his more playful tricks: the first close-up and edit within a scene - of a couple in a swimming pool whose child is wandering out on a ledge - indicate that it’s a film within a film. (The protagonist of CODE UNKNOWN, played by Juliette Binoche, is an actress.) Yet few spectators are likely to pick up on this in a single viewing, even though Haneke filmed every previous scene in a single take and ended it with an abrupt cut to black leader.
Haneke falls into a long line of filmmakers who combine sadistic and moralistic streaks, from Alfred Hitchcock to Takashi Miike. In his most problematic film, FUNNY GAMES, he had the balls to accuse the audience of immorality for indulging his violent fantasies. For all its surface preachiness, its glee at knocking its characters down from their complacent pegs was evident from the first scene, where a doomed middle-class family’s game of guessing excerpts of classical music is drowned out by a blast of noise-rock. Haneke’s often been compared to his late compatriot Thomas Bernhard, but he also has affinities with perverse European writers like the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille and Pauline Reage. Until now, these affinities have been hidden. By dealing directly with S/M, THE PIANO TEACHER brings them into the light. FUNNY GAMES purported to teach the audience a lesson about violence, CODE UNKNOWN raised a deliberately fragmentary, incomplete set of questions about contemporary urban life and THE PIANO TEACHER combines both approaches, leaning more towards questions than answers.
Erika isn’t exactly the easiest character to analyze. Her emotions only come out when she teaches the piano, when she can comfortably be a control freak. Off work, her face is a landscape of emotional desiccation. Her close relationship with her mother - the two women often sleep in the same bed - seems based in a combination of 90% hate and 10% love. Most of Erika’s problems clearly stem from her mother’s controlling nature; she’s both the victim and the inheritor of this tendency. Initially, she seems so emotionally and sexually repressed that one wonders if she’s retained her virginity into middle age.
The calamities that follow her sexual experimentation originate in this repression; Erika has no idea how to deal with men and little sense of what fantasies can safely be enacted. Initially fascinated by pornography, she takes the first step down a slippery slope by lacerating her vagina with a razor blade in the bathtub as her mother calls her for dinner. Yet I wouldn’t exactly call THE PIANO TEACHER an anti-S/M film: Erika’s self-destruction belongs to a a very distinctive individual. However, there’s something very modern about her confusion and vulnerability. Walter’s responsible for his own actions, yet it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening in the violence that concludes the film. It may be politically problematic to show a masochistic woman suffering from a man striking out in anger, rather than indulging her fantasies - akin to showing a woman with rape fantasies really getting raped - but it raises worthwhile questions about who really controls this scenario. A woman who gives her lover a detailed 5-page list detailing exactly how she wants to be humiliated isn’t exactly a shrinking violet. She’s also capable of violence herself in order to get what she wants.
Am I a wuss for preferring CODE UNKNOWN to THE PIANO TEACHER because
the former is actually pleasurable to watch, while still exploring some
of the same underlying themes about violence? I’d like to think it’s because
the former took baby steps towards a hopeful humanism, while the latter
returns to Haneke’s funny games. How much you get out of THE PIANO TEACHER
may depend on whether you consider a whipping an aesthetic experience.