The Piano Teacher
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

Should we celebrate? A few months ago, US audiences finally got a chance to see Michael Haneke’s oeuvre, when his fifth film, Code Unknown (Code Inconnu), made it to these shores, though with nary a splash. Now his latest, La Pianiste ("The Piano Teacher") is here, too, riding on its last year success at Cannes. Haneke is a Eurodirector with impeccable credentials – of German origin, residing in Austria, using French casts. He loves talking about the lies of mainstream cinema and about what art owes life in a bemused postmodernist tone devoid of ‘60s stridency. Enough to make you drop everything and drive off to the local art theater? Wait.

It is a Freudian axiom, so eagerly borrowed by modern art and raised on a pedestal, that anyone who doesn’t let it all hang out, anyone too uptight to express himself, sometimes to the anguish of those around him, must have a deep horrible secret. So if you have a fortyish spinster piano teacher who lives with her neurotic possessive mom, who dresses plainly and torments her students (first emotionally, then physically), does it come as any surprise that her utmost desire is to get tied up and whipped silly? This view of humanity is every bit as cliché as that of American Pie, where Boys Just Want to Have Fun. Whereas American Pie drops on us in a plain McDonalds wrapper, La Pianiste comes dressed up in an intellectual equivalent of a box from Tiffany’s, adorned with Adorno quotes and passionate Schubert lieder. Alas, the only discoveries a viewer will make are those that involve a razor in the heroine’s hand and used tissue in a porno shop booth.

The plot is simple: Erika Kohut, the above-mentioned concert pianist manqué but a popular conservatory professor, leads this double life of outward propriety and inward sexual turmoil until she meets a gorgeous young student who falls in love with her. Walter (Benoît Magimel) has spectacular Aryan-hunk looks, is macho enough to play ice hockey, and sensitive enough to deliver Schubert and Schonberg to ovation. (If there’s a European version of Sex and the City, he’d have to be in every episode). In short, he’s just the guy to sweep the poor schoolmarm off her feet. But Schubert isn’t Simon and Garfunkel, and this film isn’t The Graduate. At first Erika tries to play the S in S&M and impose her rules in a scene that would disgust and bore you at the same time – only a German director would know how to do that. But then, as she tries to put her fantasies into practice, everything falls apart. Walter is too literal, too much of a healthy stud to go along with her games – which in fact are quite ordinary by S&M club standards. It is a supreme joke, whether Haneke meant it as such or not, that Erika writes for Walter the rules of their affair in the most pedestrian prose one hardly expects from a connoisseur of Schumann and Adorno. The operating manual for my computer has more poetry in it. On the other hand, the banality of Erika’s sexual urges in itself is a self-defeating statement: that’s all she wanted? From that point on, the plot gets excessively melodramatic, violence turns boring (nothing worse than that), and things deteriorate quickly, as Erika’s fantasies are shattered by reality. Finally, she takes a well-polished knife and … the finale allows for different conclusions: draw your own. I won’t spoil your pleasure.

Still with me? Actually, there are a couple of reasons to see this film. One – the major one – is Isabelle Huppert, who plays Erika. This is the all-time Best Performance (won a prize in Cannes, too) in the Worst Film – and not a touch of John-Waters-like kitsch to it. This woman has played just about every shade of femininity, including a recent part in the sexy School of Flesh. I can’t judge her piano-teaching competence, but as an actress she should be teaching a Master Class nonstop. Just watch her hands dying to reach for the keys as she listens to Walter play or the titanic struggle written all over her freckled face as she yearns to contain her emotion. When she comes to a porno shop, she finds that all the booths are taken, so she waits, coolly ignoring the lewd glances of the shop habitues – pure Jeanne d’Arc, if you ask me. Of the rest of the cast, only Annie Girardot as Erika’s mother rises to a comparable level, but that territory is well-trodden. As in ‘Night, Annie.

Another reason to watch the film is its production values. That’s right: Herr Haneke has nothing new to say, but he says it well. The Vienna of the film is an extraordinary place, both physically and emotionally: the interiors are stark and chic and old at the same time, the precise performances of the supporting cast, and, finally, the thrills and the competitiveness of the classical-music scene, which to Vienna is what bluegrass scene is to Nashville. I suspect that many American viewers will be turned off as much by Erika’s sadomasochistic shenanigans as by the local pedagogical methods. Erika is a psychopath who would go as far as mutilating her student, but considering her popularity, she is hardly a standout in her demanding rigor. Judging by La Pianiste, didn’t anyone in Vienna hear about self-esteem and positive reinforcement? A modern-day film about a school where teachers would not even think of hugging their students must seem to have come another planet in the touchy-feely America. Actually, that cultural difference reaches beyond music teaching. I suspect sophisticated urban US audiences will shrug: Why didn’t she just go to an S&M club, if that’s her thing? That cultural difference is worth noting, too.

It is a slippery road to presume that the heroine (especially one like Erika) stands in for the author, but lines like "My emotions will never triumph over my intelligence" betray a relevance to the film’s aesthetics that feels rather uncomfortable. Haneke would protest if his film were compared to the kind of smut Erika sneaks in to see, but he converts physical porn into its emotional equivalent. Is this any closer to art?

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Kino International


Photo credits: © Kino International. All rights reserved.