The Piano Teacher

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Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher came out in 2001, just about halfway through his remarkable 20-year run of films starting with 1992’s Benny’s Video, ending with 2012’s Amour and taking in Funny Games, Time of the Wolf, Hidden and The White Ribbon.

All of them have a pitiless, lidless-eyed quality to them, and The Piano Teacher won all the major awards at Cannes when it was shown there. That will never happen again – the rules were changed so as to spread the love a bit wider in subsequent years.

It’s an unusual film for Haneke because he didn’t write it and didn’t intend to direct it. He took on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel only after Paulus Manker pulled out. Even so, it’s a very Haneke style opening scene, one that delivers a shock in a domestic setting – a woman called Erika (Isabelle Huppert) arrives home, only to be attacked by her aged mother (Annie Girardot) for reasons which don’t seem at all clear. The mother appears to think that her daughter is up to something. Later in the day the two of them reconcile and at the end of the day Erika climbs into the big double bed she obviously shares with her mother. Which seems a bit unusual.

Erika is a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory and in a number of scenes Haneke demonstrates her teaching style – cold, dispassionate, cruel, even – before showing showing us what Erika also gets up to when she’s not at work, in another “shock” scene – Erika in one of those old fashioned, pre-internet porn shops standing around in a blasé fashion with a group of men, all discombobulated by her presence, and waiting for a booth to become free so she can indulge her taste for hardcore porn.

At home, while her controlling mother prepares the dinner, Erika takes a razor blade to her vagina and cuts herself. Still later, she goes to a drive-in movie and gets off watching a couple having sex in a car.

By day high culture, by night hard porn.

Erika and Walter grapple on a bathroom floor
At play: Erika and Walter

And then into her life comes Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a handsome, laddish young man desperate to be taught by Erika, and in whom she senses something – an answer to her masochistic sexual fantasies, maybe? And together they embark on a quasi relationship of sorts, she trying to get him to satisfy her cravings, and he trying to get something much more conventional out of her. It ends explosively, and a touch hysterically, in scenes, Haneke style, that go on deliberately too long and ask questions about voyeurism in movie audiences.

What a strange and powerful performance Huppert gives, so much from so little, flickers of emotion on her face giving us clues as to what Erika is thinking and nothing more. Haneke’s camera holds hard on to Erika, a compulsive woman whose normal emotional drives seem to all be blocked. She doesn’t smile. Doesn’t chat. Doesn’t wear colourful clothes. Or eat fine food. It’s music, just music. And weird sex.

There’s a brilliant scene where one of her pupils is tearful at having to play on stage. All the poor girl wants is a touch on the arm to reassure her. Erika never gives it, though Huppert suggests with a flinch that Erika knows what’s required but can’t deliver it.

There is a lot of Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Rachmaninov in this film (Huppert, a longtime pianist, does her own playing), and there’s a stark contrast between all this romantic, emotional music against the backdrop of emotions not expressed. Discipline – at the piano and in Erika’s sex life – is what it’s all about, with Erika held up for psychological appraisal, with an ironic connection to the romantic agenda itself also lurking in the wings.

There’s a touch of the young De Niro in Magimel’s lean and hungry acting style, the swagger, his “the hell I am” attitude, his character like a fugitive from a gothic novel, all floppy hair and wanton undertow.

Perhaps Walter is a vampire. Or perhaps Erika is. Every time she looks at him she licks her lips. But which of them is controlling this narrative?

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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