“Practice will make you perfect.”
Erika Kohut, played with intense, chilly tenuousness by Isabelle Huppert, is reprimanded like a child. Where has she been? What’s she wearing? Her mother (Annie Girardot) is relentless in her questioning. Their strained relationship is bitter and violent, and the disturbing quarrels appear rather routine; they forgive, forget, and mother chalks up the recurrent clashes to being part of a “hot-blooded” family (father Kohut, as disclosed in a potentially significant aside, passed away in a mental institution). For a woman like Erika—strong-willed, intelligent, shrewd —this type of repression must be countered by some type of release. There has to be an outlet somewhere, somehow.
In The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s 2001 adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel, Erika’s preferred musical instrument is a figurative device, with a reliance on precision that mirrors and adapts her own sense of control, order, and discipline. As an instructor at a prestigious Viennese conservatory, Erika’s poised position is shaken with the introduction of Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a brash, suspiciously assured twenty-something (she’s in her forties). Sharply contrasting Erika’s reserved demeanor, Walter is instantly, unashamedly provocative, issuing what amount to elusive, unspoken challenges in his introductory comments, chipping away at an emergent crack in her icy veneer. It’s not that he’s malicious; it’s more that he sees something in this reticent woman, something she herself has been renouncing. Erika’s mother says the young man seems “clingy,” but she doesn’t know the half of it. He’s certainly persistent, and at the risk of tarnishing her upper crust composure, Erika is hesitantly drawn to his impulsive manner, and the not-so-subtle sexual suggestiveness of his advance.
At first, the cautious acquaintance between Erika and Walter is ambiguous; there’s a physical attraction, sure, but it’s more than just a student hot for teacher, no matter how much he espouses his musical discernment. But like everything else about The Piano Teacher, explanations and motivations are unsound. The ambivalence is guided by Huppert, whose indecipherable expressions, especially early in the picture, suggest a dense intensity searing at the surface. Just as she asserts her interpretations of the various selections taught to her students, narrating the inferences gleaned from the compositions, the viewer of Haneke’s penetrating drama is prompted to scan and interpret Huppert’s face in much the same way. In the film’s most understated and brilliantly realized indication of where Erika is coming from, Haneke progresses from a standard lesson, covering Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-Flat, to Erika arriving at a shopping mall, the classical music carried over from scene to scene. In its own way, this scenic shift is itself jarring, to see her in this trendy setting with its lights and noises and crowds, the colors and commotion a vulgar contrast to her otherwise dignified milieu. But that’s just the beginning. Erika makes her way to a sex shop, where she enters a vacated booth and, in what appears to be a habitual process, she watches a pornographic film, wide-eyed, breathing in a soiled tissue left behind by a prior customer. Her engagement with sex, however personally effectual, is nonetheless indirect; between the mediated image and the discarded remnant of prior gratification, her immersion is vicarious and detached. The sequence dramatically alters our association with Erika, giving some inking of what drives her, and what it is she struggles to preserve.
On the one hand, we now appreciate the thrill of her secret life, Haneke ratcheting the tension of her getting found out. On the other, it becomes clear that this is but one stage in Erika’s fulfillment, and soon enough, the indulgence which she has kept essentially private (see also a stunning scene of painful self-harm/satisfaction) will soon become a public exhibition: cruising a drive-in, witnessing a young couple amorously engaged in the backseat, stopping, mouth agape and tearful, to urinate by their car. It’s a perverse confluence of reactions, as if her pleasure processes are short-circuiting, and her responses are becoming erratic and confused. For Huppert’s part, and this may still be the best performance of her accomplished career, she enacts most of the above with a bare, endangered desire. In an austere world of stuffy recitals and mild elegance, conveyed in bland blacks, whites, and browns by Haneke’s regular cinematographer Christian Berger, hers is an extreme, emotionally grueling presentation. (The third wheel of the cast, Girardot is fiercely concentrated in her own right, especially when she is confronted by her daughter’s disquieting physical outbursts.)
Focus—the film’s and Erika’s—returns to Walter. Acted with confrontational charm by Magimel, who with Huppert won acting prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Piano Teacher also received the Grand Prize of the Jury, the student speaks of leveling the playing field (so far, Erika has been the one making demands and rejecting possibilities), but she is having no such thing. He goads her with cheeky barbs like, “Don’t be so serious, pretty lady,” while her frosty retorts include, “I have no feelings, and if I ever do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.” He also greets her S&M desires with skepticism: “It’s totally sick, what you’re doing here.” Now, if there was tension in what Erika kept secret, that anxiety has turned to what she has revealed. For all their initial antagonism, though, the two are complemental minds, and that antagonism ultimately develops into some sort of affection, or at least dependency. There is a curious methodology to their passion. He may chide her stimulating resistance—“You can’t dig around deep inside people, then reject them”—but he is also willing to play the game, accepting the authority and trust necessary for their BDSM encounters (he can take it far, but not too far: “Not my face or hands!” she pleads; she is an attractive piano teacher after all). It all becomes a dangerously irresistible game of psychosexual tug-of-war, coalescing in twisted jealousy and vicious retaliation.
In an interview included on the newly-released Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Piano Teacher, Haneke discusses his involvement with Jelinek’s kindred text, noting his hesitation to enter into a project not based on his own idea. Fortunately, that reluctance was alleviated (among other reasons, Huppert’s participation sealed the deal), thus opening him up to a story steeped in issues involving what he terms “obscenity” and “transgression.” The Criterion release also includes an interview with Huppert, selected-scene commentary, and behind-the-scenes footage, but it is Moira Weigel’s accompanying essay that reiterates Haneke’s celebrated and controversial approach. “Haneke has repeatedly, and notoriously, cited the climactic scene of The Piano Teacher as an emblem of his own aesthetic,” she writes. “By paring down his scripts and images, he aims ‘to rape the spectator into autonomy,’ he says. He dismisses the pleasures of narrative and psychology as pornography and propaganda.” Now, obviously, the “rape” terminology is dubious at best, but there is no denying Haneke’s practiced art of assault. His characters are complex, his stories are demanding, and his formal choices are frequently bold. In The Piano Teacher, his conjoining of outward sex and violence is dominant (a fitting enough term), but his ability to delve deep inside to reveal psychological torment is equally impressive. He isn’t insistent on a parallel narrative in the film, one concerning another domineering mother and her teenage daughter, a student who suffers greatly under Erika’s pressurized furor; instead, he defiantly leaves such analysis to the whims of the audience. Here and elsewhere, he has a profound knack for daring and challenging the viewer, forcing one to witness and accept the lengths that people will go, what people will do and what they will tolerate. While this sadomasochistic tendency is central to The Piano Teacher, it’s also at the heart of Haneke’s inimitable brand of cinema.