Love and violence may seem axiomatically opposed, but in the movies they share a common bond – they’re both difficult to depict on screen without attaching any sense of thrill to their meanings. And yet The Piano Teacher, a French film from director Michael Haneke, based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, depicts its love scenes as disturbing and awkward.
Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a piano teacher whose competence is complemented by an icy, stone-faced self-control that merely hides violent and repressed sexual fantasies. The camera always seems to find her face, taking in her whole implacable being; it’s to her credit that her emotions still come across so easy and apparent. Erika has a kind of masculine confidence and certitude. Like a man, she strides aplomb into a porn shop, never concerned outwardly with how people come to regard her in the situation. She attempts to elicit control over her lovers, treating sexual encounters like a business engagement, where the rules are known beforehand and each side has a clear role.
She is, in effect, psychologically damaged goods. Erika lives with an oppressive mother and has little choice but to assume the role as head of the house in place of a father who was committed to an insane asylum. When she is not trapped inside of her own home, Erika flexes control over her piano students, indulges in prurient violence, and enacts outlets for her strange fetishes.
Just about any other film concerned with disturbing the audience would be fortified with excess gratuity, as per the standard convention, but The Piano Teacher is most of all about behavior: Erika may be a brilliant piano player, but she is a little out of tune with the rest of the world, defying conventional social norms and lacking basic empathy for those she lies to and hurts. Her psychic top soil is so scorched that it might as well be the dust bowl. It’s a joy to watch the disturbing way in which Isabelle Huppert affects a woman slowly unraveling and losing any semblance of control, veering just a little over the edge of madness. However, the narrative sometimes goes over the edge with it, as it gets a little outlandish.
During the course of the film, Erika finds that she can play out many of her sexual fantasies with Walter (Benoit Magimel), an engineering student who connects with Erika through the way in which he plays the piano. In fact, the piano here is used as a means of communication: it reveals Erika’s chaotic, tortured soul, operating ambivalently on two opposite sides of the same boundary, from tender love to crushing violence. Whether or not she’s capable of real love at all, she drags Walter toward the center of her world as she tries to connect with him in her own bizarre ways. There are some parallels to Straw Dogs, I think, and many ways in which there aren’t, but perhaps not in ways that one would expect or think of as so immediately obvious and apparent. The films are actually quite different, but they are similar only in the respect of the dark things that people may do when pushed. Do not expect appreciation of one film to translate into appreciation of the other.
The Piano Teacher is quiet, understated, and introspective, yet teaming with the confused identity between seduction and love. It’s a good example of French cinema for the 21st century, worth a definite watch at least.
Michael Haneke (director) / Michael Haneke (screenplay)
CAST: Isabella Huppert … Erika Kohut
Benoit Magimel … Walter Klemmer
Annie Girardot … The Mother
Susanne Lothar … Mrs. Schober
Anna Sigalevitch … Anna Schober
Udo Samel … Dr. Blonskij