08 May 2007

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke

Grade: B+

Just in case you’re worried that a movie called “Piano Teacher” might be as stuffy and dull as your typical piano lesson, Haneke quickly proves otherwise; within five minutes Erika (Isabelle Huppert—wow), la pianiste of the title, is shouting, name-calling and pulling her elderly mother's hair. Perhaps that's not much more arresting than repeating major scales, but two or three reels later she is sitting in a private screening room, watching a pornographic film and inhaling the aromas of the booth's previous occupants' used-tissues. How's that? The Piano Teacher, far from priggish, is one of the nastiest, most prurient movies ever committed to digital video outside of the San Fernando Valley, so much so that its distributors felt it necessary to remove almost fifteen minutes from the U.S. DVD.

But one ought to be prepared for such ordure from contemporary French-language films, especially those directed by Michael "Funny Games" Haneke. The Piano Teacher is a character piece, a veritable gift to Huppert who gives everything she's got into her performance as a prim and proper pianist with a deviant desire for penis. A student calls her out, averring, "you're not as indifferent as you pretend"; she may put on the airs of a mean, tough professoress, but secretly, it is slowly revealed, she likes to buy nice dresses that she can’t afford, put on make-up, and spy on the kids at the drive-in as they're awkwardly humping in their backseats.

Huppert was nearly fifty years old at the time of filming and so, presumably, is her character (give or take), but Erika’s mother (Annie Girardot), whom she lives with, treats her like a teenager, constantly calling her when she’s out—"where are you? What are you doing?"—and fighting with her when she gets back in—“where’ve you been? What were you doing?” (Lady, you don’t wanna know.) So it’s no wonder, then, that Erika falls for a younger man, Walter (Benoît Magimel), one of her students—if you could call her stirring salacity and malformed sexual desire “falling”—and their relationship smacks of adolescence and gaga monomania.

Never before, even in Death and the Maiden, has Franz Schubert, Erika and Walter’s favorite composer, inspired such morbid emotions; it seems for a while that Schubert will bring them together or Schubert, specifically Walter’s poor playing of him, will tear them apart. But far more is going on here than just piano playing and, later, awkward bathroom handjobs; evidenced by a mad letter she writes to Walter, what Erika calls “love” is probably, more appropriately, sexual aberration, lust repressed for so long it's become deformed, not to mention contagious as Walter, first repulsed, is soon relishing in her preternatural kinks. (Magimel would be in similar situation a few years later in Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid, another film with a Gallic digital aesthetic in which Magimel falls for a batshit broad.)

I don't mean to sound haughty or moralistic about other people's sexual predilections, but The Piano Teacher explicitly exhibits the unerotic side of sexual fantasy; it's the (arguably) subconscious desires behind the appeal of pornography put into action as cinematic sex and the objectification of women are shown, by the film's end, not only to be anti-titillating, but actually rather sickening and sort of scary. In such a way, The Piano Teacher becomes to sex what Funny Games is to violence, at least to a certain extent as the former is far less smarmy and overbearing—and far more Huppert's show than Haneke's—than the latter. Haneke loves to confound expectations, and what began as arousing quickly turns repulsive as, for example, Erika vomits rather graphically from performing oral sex; he seems to be taunting the audience: “you want sex? I’ll give you sex.” Readership, be careful what you ask for from this man Haneke.

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