La pianiste (2001)


(director/writer: Michael Haneke; screenwriter: based on the novel Die Klavierspielerin by Elfriede Jelinek; cinematographer: Christian Berger; editors: Monika Willi and Nadine Muse; music: Martin Achenbach; cast: Isabelle Huppert (Erika Kohut), Benoît Magimel (Walter Klemmer), Annie Girardot (Mother), Anna Sigalevitch (Anna Schober), Susanne Lothar (Mrs. Schober), Udo Samel (Dr. Blonskij), Cornelia Kondgen (Mme Blonskij), Philipp Heiss (Naprawnik), Thomas Weinhappel (Baritone); Runtime: 130; Kino International; 2001-Austria/France/Germany)

“To get at the root psychology of this film would require many sessions on the couch of Dr. Freud.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

German-born director/writer Michael Haneke (The Castle/Funny Games/Code Unknown) sets his provocative study of ‘madness without mercy’ in Vienna, as the dialogue is in French and the principle actors are all French. The film is adapted from the ironical 1983 novel of some repute, “Die Klavierspielerin,” by Elfriede Jelinek (the author like the film’s protagonist had a father who died in a mental asylum), and is accomplished with the director’s usual shock techniques and heavy mannerisms. This makes his film a safe bet not to be played at your local multiplex. He keeps Isabelle Huppert on-screen for almost the entire film, as she offers a daring performance that is amazingly close to the edge but always seems credible. There’s lots of close ups of her looking intense but at the same time her freckled face seems to have no visible emotions, though she sometimes twitches from inner pain and sometimes looks bemused at her cravings for sadomasochism–her look is always odd and unforgettable. She is one of only a few modern actresses who could have pulled such a demanding role off without falling on her kisser and being laughed off the set because of how ludicrous her character’s behavior was. She’s actually quite good here, playing it for all the fervor she can gather in one cold emotional tone and never leaving the probably stunned viewer bored for a moment at seeing her neuroses hang out in the open and her tragic humiliating situations develop in such a calculated manner.

“The Piano Teacher” won three awards at Cannes 2001 (best actress-Huppert, actor- Benoît Magimel, and film). Among the laundry list of things played out in “The Piano Teacher” are: sexual repression, madness, loneliness, career jealousy, depression, obsessive behavior, and kinky sex.

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert – a 47-year-old) is a smug and severe 40-ish professor at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, who still not only lives at home with her overbearing mother (Annie Girardot) in a symbiotic love-hate relationship but sleeps in the same twin bed. At work she’s respected as a strict piano teacher, whose love for both Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann remains unquestioned.

When Erika isn’t berating one of her piano students and bringing them to near tears or slapping her mom over a dress she bought that her mom thinks is a foolish expense, she usually likes to spend time parading around in porn shops dressed in a raincoat (I thought only cartoonish lowlife guys wore those raincoats to see porn). At one peep show, she sniffs the previous voyeurs’ used tissue covered with semen. At a drive-in she urinates while spying by the car window of a couple making love. At home in her bathtub, she puts a razor to her genitals in an act of self-mutilation as mom prepares dinner. The film stays clear of psychological explanations for her behavior, but it might be that the filmmaker wants to show that she’s going mad and realizes it but still can’t prevent it.

Erika’s bitter mother wanted her musical prodigy daughter to be a concert pianist and rails at her every opportunity she gets in the disappointment that she’s only a professor; also, the father she never mentions is dying in a mental hospital. The piano teacher emulates her stifled home relationship with her bullied pupils. Yet Erika’s clever and knowledgeable enough to tell one pupil that it is better to miss one note than to render a bad interpretation of the composer’s work.

Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) is probably in his late twenties and has decided to switch at this late age from his engineer studies to study piano under Erika. He’s confident, handsome, appealing and multi-talented. Besides his gift for the keyboards, he’s an ice-hockey enthusiast. Walter ignores the suggestive stares of some attractive female students who are close to his age and sets his sights only on Erika, after seeing her play a Bach piece at his aunt’s (Kondgen) private salon. Despite her hostility toward him, he is accepted as a student in the Conservatory and is assigned to work with her.

Erika retreats to the toilet after breaking a bottle and concealing the glass in the coat pocket of a student she thinks little of, Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch), who is performing at a school rehearsal. This results in the unfortunate maiming of her hand, and forces her to cancel playing in a school concert. It might be of interest to note that Schubert’s roommate when he left home was a music student named Schober. It also might be interesting to speculate as to why Erika took out her hatred on the poor girl, someone whom she shows no outward sympathy for even though the girl also has a domineering mom to contend with. The best spin to put on it, is that she recognizes the girl isn’t fit to be a concert pianist and is being brutalized by her overbearing mother who insists she perform, anyway. But even if she did it for that reason, isn’t there a better way to help the girl? In any case, after that incident it is hard to have any sympathy for her.

After the maiming incident, Walter follows Erika into the Conservatory toilet and comes onto her sexually. Erika keeps control by ordering him to do only certain things to her and threatens to leave if he doesn’t obey, as she tries to jerk him off as he cries out for intercourse. She intimates that they can have a relationship that will satisfy both, but only on her terms and if he completely obeys the instructions she will give him in a letter.

The utterly kinky relationship that suddenly develops from this incident loses me in disbelief and the film begins to unravel after a marvelous atmospheric look at the concert milieu, where every character flaw Erika shows seemed real and possible. It seems incredible that this regular guy would have a streak of pathos in him the equal of hers, and continue to love her after she reveals she’s not the person he fell for. This sudden change of character in him never convinced me. To believe he would still be curious about this much older woman who was now shown to be severely mentally troubled, would be possible only if they were cut from the same cloth. That seemed unlikely, as the film went on and on trying desperately to convince us that was so. What it convinced me, was the story now turned out to be about a power fight over who had control. This relationship was similar to the one she had with mom and her pupils, the only difference was that I didn’t see Walter having a reason to play this game.

Haneke’s film is almost completely devoid of humor, as this grim tale is only enlivened by the stupendous music it surrounds itself with—the music scenes were stunningly beautiful and the musical atmosphere created was sparked with excitement. The film’s one humorous moment comes when the TV that is usually on in her mother’s drab household is playing a program about cowboys in North America. Yeah, that’s the kind of program that would entrance this austere Austrian lady who has no life and feelings for anyone (it was subversive humor meant to call attention to the dehumanizing influences of television)!

To get at the root psychology of this film would require many sessions on the couch of Dr. Freud. Despite its lapses into the never, never land of madness through a series of violent outbursts (one in such a vulgar place as a ice hockey rink as a contrast to the high-brow Conservatory) — Erika finally gets the beating and sex she wants but never had in her mother’s apartment with mom present and emerges physically and emotionally battered. She’s now ready for the insane asylum. The filmmaker seems to be asking, do we really want what we are asking for? Will it be what we expected? There seemed to be no soft landing in sight and thankfully no hope for a conventional Hollywood ending.

Haneke’s film both disappointed and pleased. It disappointed in the coldly clinical and academic way it presented the sick woman’s tale, as if it was doing a case study of a mentally ill person; but, it resounded in triumph at its ability to shock the senses and make you think rather than be told what you saw. I ‘think’ I saw a radical film that says art cannot be safe or else it is not art (as the film parodies the secure classical musical world for its snobby belief that it holds all the answers in high culture). It also says that madness is the ultimate price the seeker of art might be asked to pay, and the seeker has no choice once he or she goes so far but to keep going. Erika’s exploratory but unexplained story is told from behind the walls of her apartment, which has been turned into an asylum without any possible escape. It’s a place where porn and Schubert fuse together and one cannot beat out the other in her twisted mind, as she plays the piano by the rules she wholly believes but is nevertheless on the road to self-destruction. She will in the end stab herself near the heart for some kind of perverted martyrdom to prove her love of music. Why she can’t relate to people but by some set of rules, is just one of her many problems. But it is this problem that leads her on to a point where she loses track of where art and life take separate roads, and she’s left only with madness. Her music rules can’t help her in real life, as they also couldn’t help either Schubert or Schumann.