Directorspective: The Piano Teacher (2001)


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The Piano Teacher chronicles some time in the life of Erika, a brilliant pianist and brutal perfectionist as a teacher, and a woman who’s cold and impenetrable on the surface, but hides some serious masochistic tendencies beneath the icy exterior.

At the core of Erika’s existence is the relationship with her mother, a cruelly domineering and oppressive woman who holds her hostage in her own life (Erika is in her 40s, but still sleeps in the same bed as her) and this causes problems when a young student of Erika’s begins to take an interest in her, the charming and handsome Walter.

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Although she’s frosty towards him at first, and even tries to derail his application into her masterclass for the piano, she eventually relents and begins an affair with her student.

What Walter sees is a talented and mysterious woman, and that’s where his attraction lies. What he doesn’t see is a troubled and repressed woman who has serious problems expressing her sexual desires. He doesn’t see the vaginal mutilation she performs on herself, he doesn’t see her sniffing used tissues in a porn store’s viewing booth, he doesn’t realise that the “games” she’s playing with him when they hook up in a bathroom at her school ar eactually legitimate attempts to exert control over him.

And while he’s a very keen participant in the affair, that changes when she issues him a list of demands, wherein she’s the masochistic submissive to his sadistic dominant. The request startles Walter and he accuses her of playing a sick prank, or simply making fun of him.

Coupled in with this tumultuous relationship is Erika’s ongoing problem of her mother, and the fact that Erika’s personal damages manifest themselves in some strange ways: she feels jealous of one of her students catching Walter’s attention for a brief time, so she puts broken glass in the girls jacket, lacerating her hands and ruining her piano career; she sexually attacks her mother one night; she finds a couple having sex in a car and stops to urinate outside their car.

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The film does culminate in a confrontation of sorts from Walter, simultaneously fulfiling some of Erika’s desires and completely shattering them to pieces. I won’t detail the ending – it’s not particularly twist-worthy or something that needs to be saved from an audience until they behold it, but there is a powerful emotional punch to the proceedings.

And the emotions of the film are vital to its success. I could spell out every single plot detail (I’ve already told more than needed) but it wouldn’t matter as the real reason to see this film is the performances of its cast. Knowing where the film is going is one thing, seeing how the actors get there is another entirely.

On paper this is a very weird film. And I suppose in execution, the film is certainly strange, but it’s not an exaggerated “she’s so wacky” sort of portrayal. The film is very much grounded in reality, and while Erika’s quirks and behaviours don’t fit in with the definition of “normal” it’s not played for sensation.

She’s clearly a troubled woman (something clearly happened with her mother in days past) and the film is remarkable sympathetic to her, even through the cold gaze of Haneke’s direction.

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This comes down to Isabelle Huppert’s very brave, very powerful performance as Erika. It can’t have been an easy character to play, and it certainly could have gone very wrong, very easily, in less capable hands. Huppert has been criticised in the past for having a stone face, and some have accused her of being one-note. I’ve only seen a few of her films to compare, and I disagree, but certainly on the strength of The Piano Teacher, she has the same ability I’ve praised Tilda Swinton for in the past – a face that can communicate a thousand ideas with only one expression.

In Huppert’s hands, Erika is not just a bitch, she’s not just a troubled woman, nor is she just a piano teacher. She’s a multifaceted woman, and a complete riddle of a person – and the main strength of the movie.

It’s also worth pointing out Benoît Magimel and Annie Girardot as Walter and Erika’s Mothe respectively – fine performances on interesting characters, albeit not given quite as much attention as Erika. Susanne Lothar makes an appearance as the mother of the student who Erika sabotages, and even in what’s little more than a cameo role manages to convey a world of depth.

The Piano Teacher was a critical darling when it was released, but it’s almost stereotypical how much it fits the bill of “obscure foreign film.” Now for the slightly pretentious-minded like myself, that’s fine, but the film – on paper and by its premise alone – is pretty alienating to a majority of audiences. However, when actually seeing the film itself and not just reading about it, it’s much more of a character study than it is an arthouse film.

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The film appeals to my pretentious-arthouse-film-snob side, but lumping it under those categories is also very unfair to the film itself (or other people who enjoy it) – it’s an esoteric film, but a remarkable one.

Haneke’s control of the film means that, despite some potentially lurid subject matter, it’s never tawdry or sensationalistic. The sexual abberance is portrayed with seriousness, and the film understands that it’s not normal. It’s not normal S/M that relies on a mutual understanding of trust and control; it’s a symptom of Erika’s troubled mind that she wants to be completely overtaken by Walter.

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Haneke puts a lot of work into capturing the actors’ faces – this is a film about how people relate to each other, after all – and it’s little attention to details like this that break down his usually distant stance on his subject matter. As much as it can be for his style, the film is remarkably intimate with its characters, even if they’re regarding each other with disdain.

Huppert’s performance is nothing short of astounding, and the film is definitely worth seeing for that alone. It is a troubling film – it may be different in the viewing than how it sounds on paper, but it’s still a disturbing piece of cinema. But – for the open mind that can be drawn into a difficult film on the promise of great performances and character work, this is a rewarding film.

It’s also the sort of film that really does need to be seen to be understood. I’d read about it before I’d seen it, and the perception I had of what this film must be like turned out to be something very different to what the film was in the end.

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One thought on “Directorspective: The Piano Teacher (2001)

  1. Very well written. This is the only good film that I watched based on a terrible novel (which I couldn’t even finish). Anyone trying to read the Jelinek novel would appreciate Haneke’s effort even more.

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