THE PIANO TEACHER (La pianiste) A-
Austria France Germany (131 mi) 2001 d: Michael Haneke
I have no feelings, get that into your head. If I ever do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.
—Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert)
Winner of the 2nd Place Grand Prix at Cannes, Haneke’s only adapted feature, a bizarre and shockingly grotesque study of female sexuality, the dynamics of control, and losing one’s equilibrium to irrepressible forces, the film explores aspects of degradation culture, or rape culture, evolving into punitive scenes of pain and alienation, viewed from a woman’s perspective, though guided by an unmistakable male hand of a director synonymous with a cinema of cruelty, adapted from a controversial 1983 novel by Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian playwright and novelist who was writing a rebuke to rising Nazi influence within the current Austrian government, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, referring to her country as a “criminal nation” in her acceptance speech, though one scandalized member of the selection panel resigned over the decision, accusing the author of “whining, unenjoyable, public pornography.” Though perhaps more obscure, this film serves as a predecessor to Haneke’s later work, THE WHITE RIBBON (2009), in showing a direct link to what would ultimately become the Nazi Third Reich, becoming a scathing critique of intellectual high-mindedness and nationalist snobbery, where culture is appropriated in the name of tyrants and political repression. While shot in Vienna, the cast speaks entirely in French, which in itself feels like a subversive turn of events. Isabelle Huppert turned Haneke down for Funny Games (1997), thinking it was too brutal, but she is a revelation in this film, among her greatest performances, winner of Best Actress at Cannes by unanimous consensus. In Haneke films, there is always a malevolent force present in a comfortable bourgeois setting, and that is indisputably the case here. As Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), she plays a middle-aged piano professor at the Vienna conservatory who in her 40’s still lives with her domineering and abusive mother (Annie Girardot), an overly critical stage mother who sees her daughter as her own personal possession, controlling her every move, viewed as a failure in her eyes in that her career is not as a performing artist, settling for something less. In the opening scene they not only argue but fight, with her hovering mother unhappy with her behavior, questioning her fashion choices, occasionally throwing items out of her closet, even ripping them to shreds, as she does here, but then the two of them sleep in the same tiny bedroom together, literally just a few inches from one another in a claustrophobically codependent relationship, reminiscent of the self-imposed claustrophobia of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1976), where her home becomes her prison. Erika inevitably apologizes in a bizarre choreography of kisses and slaps, but this unhealthy relationship spreads its seeds of contamination throughout the rest of the film. As a piano instructor, Erika is overly stern and sadistic to the point of being bullying and self-righteous, ruling over her own dominion with piercing personal barbs that draw blood, literally ripping her students to shreds, often leaving them whimpering in tears, never dwelling on the consequences, while she shows no concern whatsoever for their broken spirits. She is the master, while they are the student, and her domineering manner rules by intimidation. While it may seem odd that this abusive dynamic would inhabit discussions about playing Schubert and Beethoven, but Erika’s haughty arrogance knows no bounds, believing she is intimately connected to both Schubert and Schumann, as if she knew them personally, where her expertise is renowned. Due to her harsh and exacting style, students are willing to be belittled by her, perhaps even destroyed, as she is a heralded artist with an impeccable reputation. Severely repressed, however, beyond our wildest imaginations, viewers have no idea what’s in store for them.
One of the biggest pleasures of the film is how Haneke uses the musical selections, a trained classical pianist himself whose career never materialized, where his mastery is best expressed in the first half, given the most excruciatingly personal musical context, filled with classical piano segues, which are as artistically sublime as anything he’s ever done, suggesting Vienna is the capital of classical music, viewed as the extreme height of European cultural traditions, as opposed to the “lower” forms of rock or pop, yet the music can be used as an instrument of repression, where an anti-humanist vein of contempt takes over in the latter stages, shown in graphic detail, unafraid of the disgust in might generate. Brilliantly bridging the music’s text to the themes of the film, one particular scene opens up the entire film. Erika is performing an ensemble piece, playing piano with a cellist and violinist, the slow Andante movement from Schubert’s Piano Trio # 2, the exact same music that Kubrick featured in BARRY LYNDON (1975), Schubert / Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, D. 929: 2nd mvt - YouTube (3:07), distinctly mesmerizing and haunting, unquestionably powerful in Kubrick’s hands, which triggers our imaginations when we hear it. In a context that is all so high brow and austere, she is briefly scolded by the cellist for not paying strict attention, so they start again to play, but à la Kubrick, the music continues on into the next scene where she is walking through a crowded shopping mall totally oblivious to the world around her, just the opposite of the heightened sensitized listening mode needed to play a Schubert Trio, which is exquisitely classical in structure, supremely crafted, instead she is lost in her own world, bumping into people, completely awkward and out of control, just like a regular geek. All this is well and good, but then we see she has entered a porn shop (in an upscale mall, mind you!), the only woman in the shop, where the male customers are obviously perturbed, while this luscious music continues to play and all around her she is surrounded by porn magazines featuring shaved pussies, endowed breasts with clamps and chains attached to the nipples, until it leads to her own private viewing room, where her sexual appetite extends into extreme masochistic fantasies, including a prim and proper lady smelling the used Kleenex from the prior male occupant inside the sex booth. Impossible not to guffaw out loud at this moment, as it’s amazing how funny and yet how perfectly constructed this scene is, as it totally changes the entire structure of the film, adding a theatrically entertaining human element to an otherwise dour and austere film.
Huppert reaches unparalleled territory here, with Haneke shooting her in two distinctly different kinds of spaces, open-windowed practice rooms or elegant, high-ceilinged conservatory settings featuring plenty of open air, but also the cramped, constricted quarters of bathrooms or peep shows, where she’s used to rubbing elbows with complete strangers. Haneke makes exquisite use of the Franz Schubert Song Cycle Die Winterreise D 911, as the artist was dying of syphilis when it was composed, a piece that aches of solitary loneliness and heartache, using portions of the seventeenth and eighteenth songs in a 24-song cycle, describing a lone traveler traversing an icy landscape reflecting upon his own restlessness and solitude, clearly a reflection of Erika’s own alienation. She speaks the carefully chosen words of a song in a lesson with one of her more anxiety-ridden students, Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch), though the first time we hear the lyrics sung is when Erika is still in the porn shop, smelling the used Kleenex, as Schubert becomes the bridge to the next scene, with the traveler passing through a sleeping wintry village, “The dogs are barking, their chains are rattling; the men are asleep in their beds,” from “Im Dorfe (In the Village)” Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore - Winterreise, Op ... - YouTube (3:02), suggesting the dogs should drive the weary traveler away, as he doesn’t even deserve rest. “I am done with all dreaming. Why should I linger among the sleepers?” This is followed by “Der Stürmische Morgen (A Stormy Morning),” which sounds like an ominous omen, “How the storm has torn apart the gray mantle of the sky,” Schubert: Winterreise, D.911 - 18. Der stürmische Morgen - YouTube (58 seconds), perhaps a fortuitous warning of the tempests that lie ahead, suggesting the turbulence may drive all the pain and anguish away. When Erika gives a private concert in the home of a wealthy patron, she meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel, who was also awarded Best Actor at Cannes), an engineer student who plays piano as a hobby, but his use of Schubert, in particular his Piano Sonata in A Major, is a direct pathway to Erika’s heart, where his playing couldn’t be more boldly ostentatious, like a peacock fluttering its tail, using the virility of his piano playing as a sign of his sexy flirtatiousness, The Piano Teacher - Schubert isn't a walk in the park - YouTube (4:59). While she pretends not to notice, she is deeply affected, stirred in unimaginable ways, yet she keeps it all concealed behind the haughty arrogance of professorial language.
Easily one of the more telling scenes takes place at home, where she finds a hidden razor blade, straddling the bathtub with one leg, using a small mirror as she mutilates her genitals, recalling Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), though with a substantially different tone, blood dripping down the bathtub, when her mother yells out “Dinner’s ready.” “I’m coming,” she replies. This kind of mordant humor comments on her sense of normalcy, as it’s not at all normal, yet she goes through the pretensions of a daily routine. Clearly one of the intentions of the film is to suggest people with so-called “normal” characteristics (such as Erika’s mother or Walter) are capable of inflicting far more brutality and ugliness than someone suffering from twisted and depraved sexual fantasies. Walter literally interrupts that routine, insisting upon taking her class, and passes through all the tryouts, yet in his very first class, he immediately pledges his undying love before playing a single note for her. But his conception of love and hers are from different universes, intersecting in a blitzkrieg of violence. Her sense of order is invaded by this overly aggressive student, who uses music as a sexually suggestive flirtatious advance, literally cornering the object of his desires. Her retort is to remind this student that Schubert thought of himself as ugly, a social outcast, where his cruel rejection plays into the utterly enthralling music he produced, perhaps equating a diseased Schubert with her own depraved sexual desires, including her preference for hardcore pornography. While the two pursue a mysterious game of sexual desire and humiliation that delves deeper into her own sado/masochistic mindset, her cruelty is exposed, intentionally maiming one of her students, a vengeful act that is unspeakably wicked, then blaming someone else. It’s clear she hasn’t a care in the world for her students, but becomes lost in a labyrinth of dark desires that only become more and more grotesque and disturbing. While Haneke’s direction is formally precise, it’s questionable whether the bizarre turn in the relationship actually elevates any drama or tension, accentuating the brutish male element as reaching obscene heights, while Huppert’s distillation of a very female sort of pain may be more in tune with a self-loathing feminist perspective than Haneke. In this film, the repulsive Benny's Video (1992) becomes a symbol of erotica. What this has to say about the human condition remains obscure, though abuse begets abuse, especially when tolerated as an everyday ordinary occurrence, until a neverending cycle of abuse becomes an unstoppable destructive force, especially when it becomes the accepted and conventional practice by police, military units, or governmental rule, drawing implications from an historical Austrian connection to the Nazis that still has a damaging influence, where the centerpiece of European culture is taken down a notch by cruel and insidious forces within suggesting a normalcy far uglier than any shameful sexual affliction.