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The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke) 2002 

Always the cinematic provocateur, director Michael Haneke forces upon us, in his The Piano Teacher, a lacerating vision of masochism and domination set in the conservative conservatories of Vienna. The film begins with a scene that shows a mother/daughter relationship that feels like itís straight out of the Mayslesí Grey Gardens. The fully-grown Erika (Isabelle Huppert) returns home after work, and is subjected to a prying series of questions and searches from her mother that quickly escalates into violence. Weíre thrown right into their relationship, and left to piece together the dynamics of it. Itís good exercise for the audience, however, because even though the film poses myriad questions, it offers few concrete answers to them. 

We soon learn that Erika is an accomplished piano teacher, who reigns over her young students with an authority similar to that that her mother attacks her with. The domination that she exerts over her students seems to be an obvious compensation for her powerlessness at home. The fascinating thing about the film is that as it continues to expound upon the ramifications of her relationship with her mother, and its bearing upon the outside world, and every other relationship that she has, it never pauses to suggest that its explanations are in any way unequivocal (though the juxtaposition of Erikaís most startling moment of self-mutilation and her motherís call to dinner seems a terribly strong link between the two). Each layer of her personality that is revealed seems to only pose further questions about why she acts as she does. Particularly fascinating is her ability to spot, in an outwardly normal looking guy, the miniscule fragment of pathos that will allow him to blossom hideously into the mate that she secretly desires. By the filmís end, even if Erika remains somewhat unresolved, and our pat explanations fail to stick to her, her ambiguities make her predicament feel that much more frightening and tragic.

 

The Piano Teacher may lack the dazzling formalistic excitement of Code: Unknown, Hanekeís masterpiece, but it slowly gathers a large degree of potency through the matter-of-fact way that it presents its emotional austerity. Huppert gives a remarkably brave performance here. Usually, performances that are considered brave rely on physical nudity to let the audience know that the actor is emotionally bare. Here, neither of the leads are ever physically naked (though Haneke still inserts some hardcore pornography, almost as an rebuff of audience expectation, given the subject matter). This allows us to focus on the psychological dynamics of the extended ďsexĒ scenes that make up the filmís core, instead of being distracted by the attractiveness of their bodies. The filmís segues into the seedier side of Austria are always appropriately shocking, and Erikaís steadfast resolve in these environments is an utterly jarring anachronism. One gets the impression that the transgression itself becomes half of her thrill (just as Haneke seems to get a kick out of scoring a scene in which she sniffs a semen-soiled napkin with Schubertís stately Piano Trio in E-Flat).  

As the movie careens on, showing us the progression of her perversion, one gets the impression that Erika, like Schubert was when he composed that piece, is in a tenuous place, where she can feel madness encroaching, but has not yet been consumed by it. Her attempts to achieve connection in the outside world that matches those that sheís received at home grow increasingly desperate as the film moves on. Though nearly every fascinating episode in The Piano Teacher leaves itself open to debate (does Erika harm a young girl sheís teaching because of sexual jealousy or because she wishes to save her from her domineering motherís attentions?), itís hardly debatable that the filmís serious treatment of its subject matter results in a work thatís truly thought provoking and radical.

 

****

02/20/02

Jeremy Heilman