Unsettling and provocative, “The Piano Teacher” is at once a study of the lives of deeply unhappy people and a commentary on the dangers of repression. It’s not pretty or pleasant, but one can expect nothing less from controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. He shines an unyielding light on his character’s perversions, prejudices, and desires.
The piano teacher of the title, Erika (impressively portrayed by Isabelle Huppert) is an aging spinster living with her crazy-domineering mother (Annie Girardot,) who still treats her like she is a girl on the cusp of puberty, who needs to be nettled and looked after constantly. They fight viciously, share the same bed, and there’s an incestuous subtext going on. Even when that subtext is confirmed, we still can scarcely believe it.
Erika is a very lonely and repressed soul, but she’s not a particularly sympathetic character. She is cruel, petty, sexually aggressive, and at one point inexplicably maims a promising student’s hand with shards of glass. However, it is impossible not to feel sorry for her at some point. She is an extremely hard character to read, and her seeming lack of emotion puzzles us deeply.
We are given virtually no backstory on Erika at all- her father is locked up in an asylum somewhere, and she and her mother have long be entangled in a sick, co-dependent relationship. That is all. When Erika meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel,) he pursues her, but neither of them know what they’re in for. They promptly head down the path of Sadomasochism and mind games.
I was surprised that this was categorized on my favorite site as ‘erotica.’ Frankly put, this is not in the least bit erotic and has some of the most unsexy sex scenes for a film containing so many. “The Piano Teacher” is not unlike “Shame” by Steve McQueen in that respect. There is no joy or virility in the ‘love’ scenes, even the consensual sex has a not only clinical but aggressive feel to it as well.
Isabelle Huppert is fabulous here, and Susanne Lothar (late, great actress and one of the only good things about Haneke’s pretentious bore-fest “Funny Games”) has a small part as the mother of one of Erika’s students whose distinct lack of warmth mirrors Erika’s mother’s own.
I wish Walter’s character had been developed a little more. He exists simply to pursue Erika’s character for one half of the movie and brutalize her emotionally and physically for the other. If his motivations had been considered more thoroughly, and his attraction to Erika better explained, the movie would have been better.
There’s a lot of ambiguity and subtext in Haneke’s films, and “The Piano Teacher” is no exception. This ambiguity is both a gift and a curse, as it is endlessly frustrating but also intriguing and may command multiple viewings. There were some thoroughly ‘What the Fuck’ moments as well, for example when Erika urinates on the ground of the drive-in theater.
“The Piano Teacher” contains some distinctly ‘Haneke’-esque annoyances like superfluous long takes but the film is startlingly adept in its power and never betrays itself with Hollywood B.S. or an inappropriately upbeat ending. Ultimately it is as as it’s as enigmatic as it’s heroine but less weirdly naive- it knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Worth watching.