The Piano Teacher tells the profoundly sad story of a life gone wrong, of emotionally paralyzing neurosis acted out like a de Sade casebook, of a desperate and desperately misguided reaching for love. It’s painfully bleak and disheartening. It’s also a brilliantly made and uncompromising film that grabs hold and won’t let go.
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a piano teacher, is forty-ish, single, and lives with her mother (Annie Girardot) in a middle class flat in Vienna. Her mother, who seems to spend most of her time at home alone watching television, has not given up on her ambitions for her daughter’s career as a musician, though the time for a breakthrough seems well past.
But this is a mother who, beyond professional issues, continues to treat her daughter as a child–as a dreadful mother would treat her child. She demands that Erika account for her time when she is not at school; she searches her purse. She berates her and belittles her endlessly and they end up in verbal fights that lead to face slapping on both sides.
Erika, in turn, acts out with her students in similarly negative ways; she has learned from a master. Praise is almost never offered. Her students are talented youngsters who have gone through grueling auditions to qualify and have ambitions to be professional musicians. The competitive atmosphere and demanding studies are stressful. Rather than offer support, Erika makes their lives more difficult with her sarcastic, derogatory comments. She’s unforgiving, unfeeling, and destructive, presenting an icily condescending facade to all.
Somewhere within her, however, remains a strong need for connection. A voyeur, she visits a porn shop where she sits in a booth watching the films, sniffing at the discarded tissue of a prior occupant. And, locked in a bathroom at home, she mutilates herself; it seems a desperate attempt to be able to feel something.
She performs Bach at a private recital where handsome young Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) admires her performance. "Where did you get your unfashionable enthusiasm, young man?" she responds. But Klemmer is smitten and persistent. Erika is interested, but she wants to set the terms, distinctly masochistic on her part, sexual gameplaying in which she is in control. Perhaps it’s the only way she can pursue the affair with a sense of safety; perhaps it is an acting out of her emotional neediness, a requirement for her numbed feelings to be penetrated and reengaged. But, she assures him at one point, "I have no feelings. Get that into your head."
The musical contextgives writer/director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Seventh Continent) ample opportunity to integrate beautiful and telling music performances into the narrative of the film. Erika is a Schubert specialist and that is a meaningful choice here. Schubert, after all, was a syphilitic who never married and died at 31; his later music darkened with his illness and is often laden with dramatic foreboding and melancholy. ("Each night, when I go to sleep, I hope never again to waken, and every morning reopens the wounds of yesterday," he wrote at age 27.) In particular, Haneke uses three songs from Winterreise, one of Schubert’s last works, an exquisite song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Muller (see sidebar). This is a somber and haunting work in its unrelenting loneliness and anticipation of death.
Huppert (The School of Flesh, The Swindle), always an intelligent and effective actor, here is nothing less than astounding. She shows the nasty surface and the aggressively hostile (even psychopathic) behaviors of this emotionally crippled woman while allowing just enough transparency for Erika’s emptiness and need and misery to show through. The gradual buildup of her character lends credence to the ultimate breakout of her rigidly contained emotions. Gravelly voiced Annie Girardot (Les Miserables) is a perfect mother from Hell and Benoit Magimel (A Single Girl, La Heine) is youthfully romantic both in his initial ardor and his subsequent confusion.
The Piano Teacher runs over two hours, but Haneke knows exactly what he is doing here; it’s hard to imagine a single frame that doesn’t contribute to the understanding of Erika’s character and the downward spiral of events in this doomed romance. Haneke not only draws fine performances from his cast, but has a sure hand in the pacing and narrative thrust of his story while sustaining throughout a very cool, outside observer’s point of view; the ironies do not have to be underscored in a work this powerful.