The Piano Teacher



La Pianiste : France/Austria 2001
director / script: Michael Haneke
based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
cinematography : Christian Berger
editing : Monika Willi
lead actors : Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot, Susanne Lothar
130 minutes

Arretez ce cinema!” snaps imperious piano-teacher Erika Kohut (Huppert) as a student dissolves into tears: the subtitles render this innocuously as ‘stop blubbing,’ but it’s quite obvious that Haneke has other interpretations of ‘cinema‘ in mind. After Funny Games and Code Unknown, this is another daunting journey into his relentlessly psychological school of movie-making: and ‘school’ is the word. The film is full of instructions as Erika lays down the law in class, and it’s clear that most of these apply to us as well, diktats from an unseen, even higher force – Haneke himself: “Do you have an ear for what coldness is?” enquires the Anne Robinson of the Viennese music world, and by the end audiences may feel frozen, but also invigorated. Erika praises Schubert because his range runs “from scream to whisper, not from loud to soft,” and it’s refreshing to encounter similar stark extremities in the cinema, even if such a direct assault sometimes feels like we’re being pummelled in the face.

A fate which awaits Erika herself, as she enters into an intense, destructive relationship with her student Walter Klemmer (Magimel). If ‘relationship’ is the right word. the passion between them is all jagged edges, sharp advances and retreats, they come into each other’s orbits and are soon locked in a fatal circuit of compulsion and repulsion: cold as magnets, and with about as much free will. As in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, highbrow bourgeois veneers abruptly crack to reveal bizarre, disturbing emotions: Erika, who spends her life in charge of her students, needs to be dominated in the bedroom, a need which appals the easy-going, down-to-earth Walter. He’s a science student specialising in ‘low voltage’ (les courants faibles), and it’s as if he’s from a different species, carefree and impulsive, his feet on the ground. While she succumbs to (inherited) mental disintegration, he gets on with the opposite, ice hockey, enabling Haneke to include a marvellous throwaway moment when his team-mates boorishly displace ice-dancers whose time on the rink is up.

Director Michael HanekeA case-study in repression, Erika lives at home with her nosy mother (Girardot), and the first scene shows them arguing, the word ‘cage’ mentioned twice in as many minutes, signalling a series of closed doors, locks, shuttered windows (as in two current Austria-set nightmares, Dog Days and Lovely Rita, and radical moviemakers should now perhaps try to present the country in a positive light.) Erika’s liberation lies in degradation – she casually mutilates her own genitals with a razor-blade, sniffs the tissues left in porn-cinema cubicles, spies on couples in a drive-in cinema before pissing on the ground. The film is full of these casual, disorientingly strange moments, and the camera doesn’t help us much – it moves, but maintains a distance so we can’t quite work out exactly what’s going on. Despite the Vienna setting, all the characters speak French and with the exception of the central trio (whose character-names are overtly non-Gallic), this is achieved through dubbing, a conspicuous and overt distancing device.

Huppert doesn’t give much away, either – Haneke holds on Huppert’s face, which seems to register the tiniest gradations of feeling: pleasure and disgust flashing across the transparent mask of her features. As with Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream, we worry for the actress’s mental and physical health – Funny Games survivor Lothar pops up as a student’s mother, reminding us how Haneke likes to put his performers, characters and audiences thtough it. Late on, Walter’s disgust overcomes his fascination and he delivers the beating Erika thought she craved, and as she sits, bruised and broken on the floor, Huppert somehow runs an almost imperceptible frisson through her whole body. This is the justification of the coldness, the distance, the reserve: when it’s shattered, the resulting fragments are all the sharper. The cumulative effect is uncomfortable but electric: it’s impossible to obey Erika’s desperate cries of ‘Don’t look, don’t look’ as she vomits up Walter’s semen after a bout of oral sex. It’s a plea to Walter, to herself, to us, and to Haneke. But the camera does not move.

19th December, 2001
(seen Dec-18-01, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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