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April 26, 2002
Player Piano

The Piano Teacher still.
The teacher finds her promising student both repellent and irresistible.

Photographed from a high angle, the hands of Erika Kohut—anti-heroine of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher—attack the keys of her cherished instrument with predatory glee. Unlike the dashing Chopin portrayed by Cornel Wilde in 1944’s A Song to Remember or the cuddly schizophrenic virtuoso celebrated in Shine, Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is an autocratic pianist and instructor who lacks charm but revels in her apparently steely self-control.

Still living with her maniacally possessive mother (Annie Girardot), Erika’s authoritarian character is unmistakably tied to her sexual frustration. While several seminal films discerned links between sexual repression and political authoritarianism during the ’70s (Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism were among the most noteworthy), Haneke stops short of placing his protagonist, both monstrous and strangely vulnerable, within the context of resurgent Austrian fascism.

Of course, this decision is partially determined by the film’s status as an Austrian-French co-production featuring a Franco-German cast. And Haneke, known for offending his audience in restrained shockers such as Benny’s Video and Funny Games, seems much more interested in Erika’s fondness for furtive kinky sex than with protracted social commentary. While similarly claustrophobic and character-driven, the Elfriede Jelinek novel that inspired the film included fleeting glimpses of what the author termed contemporary “Viennese venom.” The relatively faithful adaptation, featuring three of France’s most distinguished actors, comes off as suffused with a heavier dose of Gallic irony. It is also not difficult to notice that the masterworks of high Romanticism by Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven that enliven the soundtrack are, within this perverse context, rendered strangely sinister.

More a musical martinet than a traditional piano teacher, Erika finds relief from her overweening commitment to aesthetic discipline by frequenting local porn emporiums. The presence of a desirable—and desiring—woman in this male-dominated zone is in itself a provocation. The bulk of the narrative is bound up, however, with Erika’s warped on-again, off-again seduction of a promising male student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), whom she finds both repellent and irresistible.

Elegantly photographed in a widescreen format and devoted to the cerebral treatment of sexual politics that has distinguished European art cinema since the ’50s, Haneke insists that this superficially somber mood piece is in fact a parody of melodramatic conventions. It is clear that a ferocious brand of black humor frequently pinpoints the absurdities engendered by a preoccupation with sexual technique rather than genuine eroticism. A ludicrous—and genuinely creepy—sequence features Walter’s horror after receiving a detailed missive from Erika listing her preferred methods of sexual humiliation.

In the final analysis, The Piano Teacher is less consumed with sex per se than it is with its protagonist’s vulgar Nietzscheanism—her veneration of power and contempt for outward displays of weakness. The most chilling example of this propensity involves a timid young female student’s innocent flirtation with Walter. Ostensibly inflamed by jealousy, Erika furtively plants ground glass in the unsuspecting student’s coat. This vicious act is emblematic of Erika’s inescapable double bind—she loathes helplessness but is traumatized by self-loathing as she is forced to come to terms with her own insecurity. In the best Haneke manner, this realization reaches its zenith in a moment designed to make us undeniably queasy.

Several critics have complained that the film fails to capture the essentially feminist impetus of Jelinek’s novel and turns Erika into a one-dimensional harridan. Yet what Haneke characterizes as his more “objective” approach to the material yields certain benefits as well. He feels no need to signpost the fact that this mentally unstable musician is a product of a hierarchical society that provides little room for female autonomy. Without blatant editorializing, her plight speaks for itself.

Like many of Haneke’s other films (and unlike his most nuanced work, last year’s Code Unknown), The Piano Teacher is insistently, even obsessively, schematic. At times, Erika emerges as less a full-fledged individual than an agglutination of symptoms. Given the Freudian specter that haunts this portrait of Viennese angst, it comes close to resembling a series of arid oedipal entanglements. Fortunately, Isabelle Huppert’s superb performance prevents the narrative from degenerating into a lifeless case study. One of the most subtly effective actors in contemporary cinema, she is capable of conveying petulance, defiance, or pleasure with the slightest of gestures. While Haneke aims for a mood of chilly detachment, Huppert warms up the screen with her fiery intelligence.

As a straightforward examination of psychopathology, The Piano Teacher is a qualified success. When Haneke moves into murkier and more pretentious terrain—implicitly claiming that high culture is the ultimate form of sublimation and making the audience uncomfortable about their own voyeuristic propensities—the film falls flat. Despite considerable bravura, Haneke’s attack on bourgeois mores is far from Brechtian. Whetting the audience’s appetite with a superficially “daring” form of titillation, they are doubtless more pleased than shocked to gawk at Huppert’s Erika—the star of a freak show tailor-made for the carriage trade.

Richard Porton is a member of Cineaste’s editorial board and the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.


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