WHAT'S GOOD: The Piano Teacher (2001), A Film by Michael Haneke.
Erika Kohut is a 40 year old pianist teaching at a prestigious Vienna conservatory. Despite being talented and beautiful, Erika has no partner and no friends, and shares an apartment with her overbearing mother.
Erika displays strange, hyper-sexualised behaviour when she is able to escape her mother’s watchful eye. She cuts herself in the bathroom before dinner. She spies on couples in drive-in cinemas. She visits porn theatres and sniffs discarded tissues.
It is not clear whether Erika is lonely because she is deranged or deranged because she is lonely. But one thing is clear. The route to her heart is via her passion—Schubert—of whose work her mother believes her to be a singular master, until the two of them encounter a young man of unusual talent at a recital one evening.
This event causes Erika’s mask to slip. The young man, named Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), applies to join Erika’s class at the conservatory, and despite her opposition is accepted.
Klemmer quickly falls in love with his aloof and brilliant professor. Erika eventually responds to his advances with a list of instructions more clinical and shocking than anything she has dispensed as a teacher.
Klemmer is repelled by Erika’s dark sexual proclivities, and his entry to her private realm allows him to subject her to acts of cruelty even baser than those she asks him to inflict on her.
The most interesting aspect of the film is how disparate Erika’s public life as a member of an elite institution is from the degeneracy of her private life, and how convincingly the two co-exist.
The film is an an exposition of the well known feature of human nature that the most zealous moralisers are frequently the most depraved, but is atypical in that the subject is a woman and not a high-powered man.
It is also notable that despite Erika’s cruelty we do not pray for her demise. Like Joker and Christian Schad’s Pigeon Chested Man, the film humanises the kind of individual usually dismissed as beyond redemption.
“I don’t like to say a character . . . a character by definition does not exist. So I’d rather say I play another person, which happens to me by the way . . . a character belongs to fiction, and my obsession as an actress was never to do fiction. It was to do reality.
- Isabelle Huppert on playing Erika Kohut.
This is the result both of Huppert’s superb acting and the film's skilled direction. Haneke's long takes in particular are used to great effect.
Other aspects of the production are less impressive. La Pianiste is a French language film set in Vienna. It therefore has no hope of achieving a strong sense of place, and in several scenes the German speaking supporting actors are clumsily dubbed over. Paris would have been a more fitting setting, not least because Erika is a quintessential Parisienne.
These issues are distracting but not serious enough to ruin this remarkable film. Like Eyes Wide Shut, La Pianiste is often wrongly billed as an erotic or psychosexual work. There are several salacious scenes, but the film is much sexier in its depictions of a complex student-teacher relationship than those in which the two leads exploit each other physically.
“There are very few films that show sexuality in a suitable way.”
- Michael Haneke.
La Pianiste is a film of depth and real intrigue from a director criminally under-appreciated in the English speaking world, a character study of a woman as talented as she is damaged, as charismatic as she is repellent.
I saw Michael Haneke in Paris once. He was sitting in the Place Colette opposite La Comédie-Française where I had just seen a show. The friend who invited me told me the director was often seen in the audience scouting talent.
As he sat there alone, close to midnight, working quietly on his iPad, it struck me that this was the life of an artist. A life in which there is no distinction between work and leisure. In which the essence of existence is observation. Forever immersed. Forever detached. A life in which the work is never done. I decided not to bother him to say how great I think this film is.
What’s Good are short reviews of misunderstood and under-appreciated works.