La Pianiste (AKA: The Piano Teacher) – 2001
Director – Michael Haneke
Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, and Benoit Magimel
Oh, Michael Haneke. You and your sparse, harsh morality tales! I know from the moment that I hear this particular director’s name, that I am going to be witness to an unflinching account of the baser side of human behavior. This prolific filmmakers work often comes on a tide of praise and accolades despite their typically dark subject matter. Of his films, I’ve seen Cache, The White Ribbon, and now The Piano Teacher, all of them difficult stories about fractured people, poorly relating with one another.
As one might gather from the film’s title the main character of this film, Erika, is a teacher of the piano. On her exterior, she is a rather harsh and cold woman, she harbors a deep desire for connection that she doesn’t get from her overly dramatic live-in mother, or from her pristine and rather antiseptic relationship with music.
She spends her time looking down her nose at her students and pre judging them based on their understandably timid nature around her, playing piano, oh, and she may cut herself just for laughs. One of her students, Walter, attempts to get her attention first through music, then through flirting, encountering rejection at each turn. Next, he takes a somewhat more drastic approach by following her into the ladies room, clumsily embracing her, and forcing a kiss on her. She responds, a mite unexpectedly, by opening up to him about her desire to be dominated, humiliated and abused both verbally and physically.
Initially, Walter seems excited, expressing a desire to learn more, and stepping up his advances. However this eventually gives way to unease and eventually to disgust as Erika outlines exactly what it is she would like him to do to her. This time it is he who does the rejecting and she who begins the pursuit. This trading back and forth of who has the power in this relationship is fueled mainly by his anger (with her and with himself), and her need for attention and affection (confused and misguided as it may be). It seemed to me that her desire to be dominated mirrored in many ways her tumultuous relationship with her mother, and perhaps there have been other similarly motivated relationships that have informed her view of how men and women are supposed to cohabitate.
The acting in this film is typical of the other Haneke films that I have seen, slow in pace, severe in tone, and more than a little uncomfortable. Isabelle Huppert pushes the role of Erika to such a point that I basically stopped liking her, and then was able to bring her back to a point where I felt sorry for her, rescuing her from the clutches of my uncaring. Now whether or not you like the character at the end, that is a pretty remarkable feat for an actor to pull off. Unfortunately, I don’t think Benoit Magimel had as much success, nor as much to work with. By the end of the film, I totally didn’t like Walter at all, and it’s not as if I started off liking him a lot. Walter seemed overly eager to me, and by extension, a little insincere and false. I always felt like he was trying to put one over on Erika, in order to get something (most likely sex although I was ready for anything, money, a laugh, even some sort of bizarre revenge) from her.
In the end though, I felt this film to be inferior to both of the other Haneke films that I’d seen previously. The Piano Teacher lacked the raw menace and shock that came with Cache, and it lacked the austere beauty, and hidden danger and anger that came out of The White Ribbon. Cinematographically speaking, this film didn’t have all that much going for it. While composed well enough, the shots seemed ordinary and almost placid, succeeding only in simple documentation of the character’s actions. Though that may have been a conscious choice (I hope it was anyway), it’s not one that really worked for me. The story wasn’t shocking enough to juxtapose the calm stability of the imagery, and the imagery wasn’t artful enough to keep me entertained while watching it.
Mr. Haneke has at least one other film on this list that I have yet to see, Funny Games, which was ultimately re-made by him (for english speaking audiences), also called funny games. I’ve heard some real praise for that film, both versions of it , but also some warning of its harrowing nature, and I must say that I’m a more excited to see that film as it seems like it might have a little more to say even if it’s more disturbing. The Piano Teacher seemed a rather light effort to me, one that certainly wouldn’t have ranked as one of the 1001 best films ever, but also one that covered similar material as did films like Secretary, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, which were in terms of craft, construction and message, leagues better than this one.