The Piano Teacher

Studio: Criterion

Oct 10, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

My introduction to the work of director Michael Haneke came in the context of a horror movie marathon for a university film class. Each film was from a different country and included The Wicker Man, The Eye, and Haneke’s Funny Games (the original). The home invasion thriller that is outwardly antagonistic toward the audience at a pivotal point (not a detriment) perhaps gave me unfair expectations of what to anticipate or look for in Haneke’s library. When I got around to seeing Cache, I was not as enthused, though I couldn’t tell you why now.

The Piano Teacher – recently released by The Criterion Collection – helped crystallize something. While Funny Games features an overt sort of horror his other films deal with much more isolated and intimate forms of terror. Code Unknown explores class and race relations in Europe as they build to a fever pitch; Amour focuses on what it’s like to both lose your mind to disease and watching a loved one go through that irreversible process; Cache looks at the obdurate nature of past behavior, and its unwillingness to disappear.

The Piano Teacher is similar in that it deals with a far more personal, and individual pain. The first scene spells it out, too. Erika (Isabelle Huppert) arrives home, apparently late, and receives scorn from her mother. The argument escalates and her mother tears a dress she had bought. Immediately, it’s apparent that Erika – presumably a women in her late 30s or 40s – lives under the rule of her tyrannical mother, and has done so for some time. They even sleep in the same bed. To her mother, Erika’s talent and career as a pianist/teacher must take precedent over all else.

Huppert may be perfect for the role. She is icy cool, mostly projecting an indifferent, almost robotic persona. Her approach to intimacy and sexuality is alien, which makes sense when it’s suggested she’s never been able to get out from under her mother’s thumb for more than a few hours at a time. And even then, the phone calls start pouring in wondering when she’s coming home from a rehearsal or a late lesson. That’s when Walter enters the picture. He’s a 20-something, eager piano student who forms an attraction to Erika, leading him to pursue her as his teacher and, potentially, as a lover.

What follows is a dissection on infatuation, consent, rejection, and abuse. Haneke never lingers long on the causes, because in the end perhaps they don’t really matter. Erika is sexually repressed, and as she opens up with her desires, Walter reacts poorly. And with Walter, he projects more conventional desires, which Erika doesn’t have much interest in. There’s a tug-of-war of sorts at play, and both parties are too self-obsessed to even consider that their sexual appetites do not match up. Walter especially acts hypocritical when he calls Erika out for not embarking on equal footing, when he just wants her to follow his lead.

The mother has, regardless of her intentions, polluted the well so-to-speak. Not necessarily in Erika’s sexuality, but in her ability to connect with those around her. The frame often separates her from others. When she and other conservatory professors are viewing auditions, they sit together while she sits apart. Even when she is in closer proximity, Huppert’s distant performance places her miles away. One scene involving a broken glass suggests that she’s more tortured by her inability to form these connections than she lets on, while also depicting how she’s prone to jealousy and pettiness like a child instead of the mature, outward façade she wears. She just has more adult tools at her disposal for her tantrums.

Haneke, ever the antagonist, puts Erika’s perceived deviance front and center. It’s possible that her wishes will repulse members of the audience, and that seems by design. The film dares you to accept her and understand her – after all, nothing she wants is criminal so long as consent is provided – something that neither her mother, Walter, nor the rest of the people in her life can provide. Like those other films Haneke has made, The Piano Teacher explores a very human form of dramatic horror – in this case, the inability to be understood and loved for your true self in addition to how we can be the product of our upbringing. Sometimes, it’s out of our control, and few things are scarier than loss of control.

And like a Haneke film, it will not work for everyone. He’s got a particular wavelength, and mileage will always vary. If you’ve responded poorly to his films before this, The Piano Teacher is probably not going to win you over.

The Criterion edition features new interviews with Haneke and Huppert, and several bits of behind-the-scenes footage. There is also an excellent essay by Moira Weigel called “Bad Romances” breaking down the sexual compulsions of Erika as a masochist while connecting the film’s themes to Haneke’s broader body of work. Weigel points to questions raised by the film whose answers are left ambiguous (obviously, read this essay after watching) though depending on your own preconceptions, they may seem less so.


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