Directed By: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel
Trivia: The character of the mother is based on author Elfriede Jelinek's real life mother
With its stark depiction of repressed emotions and sexual deviancy, director Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher gnaws at you, wearing you down until you’re completely immersed in (and simultaneously repelled by) its story of a woman standing on the precipice of self-destruction.
Erica Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged piano teacher who lives at home with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). As an instructor, Erica is very strict, and often verbally abuses her pupils whenever they make a mistake. She is also sexually frustrated, and spends a great deal of time visiting porn shops, or spying on teens at the drive-In theater as they explore their budding sexuality. So severe is her mental anguish that it sometimes drives her to acts of self-mutilation. Then, at a recital, Erica meets Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), an amateur musician who quickly becomes infatuated with her. At first distant, Erica soon succumbs to Walter’s charms, and the two share a rather intimate encounter in an auditorium restroom. She eventually writes Walter a letter, revealing her deepest desire is to be tied up and beaten while her mother, unaware, sits in the next room. Repulsed, Walter abruptly ends the relationship, but Erica continues to pursue him, anxious to rekindle an affair that has come to mean the world to her.
With The Piano Teacher, director Michael Haneke turns his back on what many would consider “normal” behavior (sexual or otherwise) to present a portrait of human suffering that is often difficult to stomach. Erica’s repressed rage manifests itself in different ways throughout the movie, including an authoritarian approach to her work. But her harsh treatment of her students has its roots in selfishness more than anything else, designed to shatter their dreams in much the same way hers have been destroyed (in one scene, she intentionally injures her most promising protégé right before an important recital). Obviously, her conduct hinders any emotional connection between Erica and the audience, but then, such a bond isn’t essential. Together, Haneke and Huppert have constructed a central character we may not like, and one we certainly won’t understand, yet they still manage to keep our attention throughout, building interest to the point that we’re eager to see where Erica’s fate will guide her.
The Piano Teacher is, at times, cold and dispassionate, yet it is also never exploitive, and, considering the material Haneke was working with, that alone is something of a minor miracle