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The left must confront anti-Semitism head-on.
Every One of Us Has a Teaspoon
Hugo Chávez is back in power. Now what?
Jean-Marie Le Pens strong showing shocks the French left.
Too Cruel for School
Students stand up for workers rights.
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75,000 gather in Washington.
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In Delaware, Not Easy Being Green
In Person: Alan Muller
Words To Live By
BOOKS: Ben Marcus Notable American Women.
MUSIC: Wilco returns.
FILM: Not your ordinary Teacher.
April 26, 2002
hotographed from a high angle, the hands of Erika Kohutanti-heroine of Austrian director Michael Hanekes The Piano Teacherattack the keys of her cherished instrument with predatory glee. Unlike the dashing Chopin portrayed by Cornel Wilde in 1944s 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), Erikas 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 Bertoluccis The Conformist and Dusan Makavejevs 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 films status as an Austrian-French co-production featuring a Franco-German cast. And Haneke, known for offending his audience in restrained shockers such as Bennys Video and Funny Games, seems much more interested in Erikas 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 Frances 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 desirableand desiringwoman in this male-dominated zone is in itself a provocation. The bulk of the narrative is bound up, however, with Erikas warped on-again, off-again seduction of a promising male student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), whom she finds both repellent and irresistible.
legantly 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 ludicrousand genuinely creepysequence features Walters 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 protagonists vulgar Nietzscheanismher veneration of power and contempt for outward displays of weakness. The most chilling example of this propensity involves a timid young female students innocent flirtation with Walter. Ostensibly inflamed by jealousy, Erika furtively plants ground glass in the unsuspecting students coat. This vicious act is emblematic of Erikas inescapable double bindshe 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 Jelineks 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 Hanekes other films (and unlike his most nuanced work, last years 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 Hupperts 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 terrainimplicitly claiming that high culture is the ultimate form of sublimation and making the audience uncomfortable about their own voyeuristic propensitiesthe film falls flat. Despite considerable bravura, Hanekes attack on bourgeois mores is far from Brechtian. Whetting the audiences appetite with a superficially daring form of titillation, they are doubtless more pleased than shocked to gawk at Hupperts Erikathe star of a freak show tailor-made for the carriage trade.
Richard Porton is a member of Cineastes editorial board and the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.
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