The Piano Teacher

2002, Movie, NR, 130 mins

Review

PIANO TEACHER, THE | LA PIANISTE
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Based on the semi-autobiographical book by Vienna's Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, this is a psychological study that rejects psychology, an erotic drama of surpassing coldness, and a story of amour fou in which the madness is calculated and the love frozen. Middle-aged, failed concert-pianist Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) teaches at the prestigious Vienna State Music Conservatory and lives with her fiercely controlling mother (froggy voiced Annie Girardot), whose thwarted ambitions for Erika's career have curdled into bitter determination that her daughter will achieve nothing else. Erika badgers and belittles her students, and turns what's left of her seething fury on herself, methodically mutilating her private parts with a razor blade as her mother prepares dinner in another room, then accidentally-on-purpose letting a little blood escape down her leg so mother can berate her for slovenly feminine hygiene. Into this thicket of pathology walks golden youth Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) — wealthy, handsome, athletic, charming and possessed of a remarkable flair for music. He flirts with Erika to no avail, auditions for the conservatory (hers is the only vote against his admission) and meekly submits to her vicious pedagogical methods. Little does he imagine that Erika is without romantic experience (perhaps even a virgin) but frequents porn-store video booths and sniffs the tissues discarded by masturbating men, spies on couples fornicating in cars and urinates on their vehicles in voyeuristic ecstasy. She confides baroque sadomasochistic fantasies to Walter through a densely written letter of instruction that both horrifies and baffles him, and the upshot of their funny games satisfies neither and in fact devastates Erika, who learns that even her own imagination has betrayed her. Director Michael Haneke calls this film "a parody of a melodrama," and to that end exaggerates to caricature the insanity of the repressed spinster/domineering mother relationship; the predatory brutality lurking beneath the fervor of a young lover who won't take no for an answer; and the emotional price of sublimating of sexual energy into art. This schematic approach generates endless discussion points: When, for example, Walter forces Erika to accept him as a student, is he simply doggedly infatuated, recreating a melodramatic archetype of seduction (dewy student/experienced teacher), or exploring his own masochistic need for domination? Which is all very well, in the high-handed and intellectually distanced way that gives academic film criticism its bad name, but doesn't add up to engaging filmmaking. That is no doubt fine by Haneke, who's famously disgusted by the falseness of filmmaking, but leaves viewers out in the cold and undermines some phenomenal performances. Huppert is very nearly miraculous: Leaving aside her game acquiescence to Erika's degradations, her face registers a complex of emotions even when she appears not to be doing anything at all. (In German and French, with subtitles) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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