The Piano Teacher
2001, NR, 130 min. Directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 12, 2002
It's little wonder that Vienna is the city that cultivated Freud's breakthrough ideas about sex and repression and civilization. The Piano Teacher seems as though it might be a page lifted from one of the theoretician's forgotten case files. Although set in contemporary Vienna and based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, this movie's disturbing yet provocative subject matter examines the kind of conflicted pathology that fueled Freud's postulations about the inner workings of the human mind. Erika Kohut (Huppert), a top piano teacher at a Viennese conservatory, instructs her students in a brusque and cold manner, harping on their failures like a drill sergeant with a batch of raw recruits. When she isn't in her box-like practice room/office hectoring her students or staring out the window, she performs in recitals and other practice groups and goes home at night to the small and tidy apartment she shares with her mother (Girardot). The two women sleep in the same bed; it's mentioned briefly that dad died in an insane asylum. The movie opens with a harrowing scene of Erika and her mother coming to blows over a gaudy new dress found among Erika's private belongings. Indeed, these women spend the rest of the movie in a thorny but love-soaked pas de deux of dominance, masochism, and reconciliation. When not home with mother we see Erika striding brazenly through porn shops, throwing coins in the video slots while sniffing detritus left by previous patrons or committing acts of voyeurism and more at the local drive-in. At home she methodically cuts herself between her legs and secretly cleans up the blood and razor blade as her mother calls her to the dinner table. The Piano Teacher is not a movie that stints on its premise and its attendant imagery requires some stoic acceptance. However, considering the subject matter, Haneke's imagery is remarkably restrained as if it, too, walks the same line that Erika travels: between the “civilization” of the classical music and unsullied art world of Vienna and filmmaking and the more human and uncontrollable emotions of sex and its messy drives and impulses. Into this petrified hothouse comes Walter (Magimel), a student whose attraction to Erika somewhat melts her self-imposed barriers. But her acquiescence comes with a list of written demands of Walter that outline her, um, acquiescence and the role he is to play in all this. Both Huppert and Maginel took the top acting awards at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where The Piano Teacher also earned the Grand Jury Prize. Huppert is indeed extraordinary to watch as her face and body express so much while also retaining a certain inscrutability. Although little is ultimately “solved” or demystified in The Piano Teacher, the movie allows a chaperoned peek into the mind of one of civilization's “discontents.”