Michael Haneke creates very painful environments for his characters, usually domestic, and usually as a result of internal conflict. Most of the time even the characters themselves don’t know what the conflict is, and the movies unfold so that they can find out. The Piano Teacher has the most tormented characters, who at first play sexual games with each other but are later horrified when the games turn to disaster.
There has yet to be a Haneke movie that plays like conventional cinema. This is a blessing. His movies creep along with the pace of a snail, carefully crafting his people and their situations in scenarios that are awkward and unsettling. Consider the lengthy opening shot of Caché, where the camera sits across from a Parisian townhouse and observes the comings and goings of its residents, as if spying. Or consider the atmosphere in the Laurent household in Amour, once lovely and serene, later dishevelled and deflated. Events unfold slowly in real life; they don’t happen in a heartbeat. Haneke slows down the pace of his films to uphold this.
In The Piano Teacher, we meet Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a middle-aged piano maestro who holds classes at a music conservatory in Vienna. She is emotionally, socially and sexually distant, a victim of a domineering mother (Annie Girardot), with whom she lives — and sleeps. She regards the music of legends like Schubert and Schumann with admiration and a certain look of contempt — when she teaches, her face is stern and unappreciative, as if the piano and the student are working together to defame her heroes. When one of her more gifted students is selected to perform for the school concert, she grows envious and fills the student’s jacket pockets with broken glass. A lacerated hand for a pianist is as useful as broken vocal cords for a singer.
She meets a young bloke by the name of Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), who is too old to be a student of Classical music but takes an instant liking to Erika. He tries again and again to join her classes. Their relationship mirrors the stereotypical teacher-student taboo, but what’s great about the way Haneke portrays them is that none of their feelings surface for the film’s first hour. Their thoughts and emotions are conveyed via glances, long, heavy looks and unnatural body language. At a recital, Walter follows Erika to the ladies’ lavatory and the two explode on each other. The scene is wonderful because the tension is finally lifted. But what starts out as sexually charged foreplay gradually retreats to rigid teasing — Erika seeks to control Walter, to make him bend to her will. She has spent years honing her preferences and now that Walter wants her, she must take the opportunity.
Walter plays along, like any young man would, but when he goes to her apartment one night and is forced to read a letter given to him by Erika in strict confidence, the tables turn. Erika is a sexual student of sadomasochism. We never learn where or when she grew into it, but her desires, carefully detailed in the letter, are not mainstream. Now she is the one who wants to be controlled, punished and humiliated. She lists ways in which her escapades can disgust her mother, but they end up disgusting Walter more, who storms out of the apartment and tends to his other passions, like ice hockey.
What follows from here is a dangerous and sad exchange of confessions and advances that downward spiral both Walter and Erika into a pit of despair. Walter gives Erika what she wants, but not in the way she wants it. He fulfils the letter but breaks apart the Kohut household. The two become so confused by the games they started out liking that we can’t help but feel that if Walter had understood the parameters of sadomasochism, or if he was a student of it himself, they would have flourished in each other’s fetishes. I don’t think that either of them are insane, nor do they hold back psychotic urges. They are victims of their own sexuality, sexualities that are not compatible.
Huppert delivers a sturdy performance as Erika. She is cold, but frail. Her desires are alien to others, not herself, and Huppert has a masterful way of communicating with little twitches of the lips and sneaky streams of tears that line her cheeks. Opposite her, Magimel — who has a streak of Tobey Maguire about him — walks a fine line between chauvinist and naive victim. The last scene makes it difficult for us to determine if he’s remorseful, and maybe the whole scene is just a dream. It all ends on a question mark. But when the entire film plays like a question mark, it only seems fitting that Erika should leave the story with no resolution.
Best Moment | The lavatory scene is affecting, but I also enjoyed most of Walter’s and Erika’s other interactions, all of which speak eloquently without many words.
Worst Moment | Nope.