Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher delves into the nature of obsession, of forbidden desires, and refuses to provide any easy answers. A controversial feature if there ever was one, The Piano Teacher is also a fascinating character study that will leave you speechless by the time that it has ended.
The Piano Teacher is based on the 1983 novel by Elfriede Jelinek, and invites us into the life of Erika, a well renowned piano instructor and expert on the music of Schubert. Erika lives with her domineering mother, who insists on knowing her whereabouts at all times. At the start of the film, the two argue violently over a dress that Erika has purchased – something that her mother sees as a needless splurge. This scene is startling, both for what we see and all that it implies, thus setting the tone for the rest of the film. This is a highly dysfunctional situation which has taken its toll on Erika, who’s father was put away in a psychiatric facility years ago. At work, Erika displays very little empathy or grace towards her pupils, constantly berating them for their errors – even going to great lengths to ensure that they don’t succeed. She is distant at all times, rarely ever breaking her monotonous tone or cold stare.
One day, she meets a handsome young talent named Walter and is immediately taken by him. He enrolls in one of her classes, but she manages to keep a tight reign on the lust which burns inside of her. All of the sexual tension comes to a head in the bathroom one evening, Walter soon realizes that Erika’s sexual demands are a bit on the unorthodox side. In fact, the audience will have known this before Walter, as we witness Erika’s nightly routine only moments before. When she can get away from her mother, Erika frequents adult novelty stores, where she enters a private stall and watches pornographic films, casually picking up and sniffing the semen stained tissues in the trash bin. As a couple makes love in a drive-in parking lot, Erika squats down beside their vehicle and urinates. Later, she sits on the edge of the tub with a mirror and a razor blade and, well, we know by now that Erika has some pretty strange and sadistic fetishes.
As Erika seems increasingly insistent on calling the shots in their relationship, Walter will unknowingly walk into her web of dark secrets – a place from which he may or may not escape. When Erika gives him a letter full of shocking masochistic demands, we can only sit and watch as the inevitable occurs. It goes without saying that this is a harsh film, but it is intellectually rewarding as it forces us to peer into Erika’s tortured psyche without spoon-feeding easy answers. Michael Haneke’s clinical directorial approach is just as cold and detached as Erika, consisting almost entirely of prolonged static shots that allow us to simply observe the characters and their emotions. Much like Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, this is a film that deals with socially and culturally disconnected individuals who are teetering on the edge of total destruction.
The Piano Teacher is a near-perfect psychosexual character study that explores the depths of perversity and all consuming passion, and finally, the hidden compulsions that stir within each and every one of us. It is not for the faint of heart, but those who are willing to surrender themselves to it will never forget it. The performances are magnificent. Isabelle Huppert deserved the accolades that she received for this film. Her portrayal of Erika is pitch-perfect. You forget that you are watching an actress, as she brings this pathetic woman to life and makes us sympathize with her. Benoît Magimel is magnetic as the handsome Walter, who gradually becomes a central player in Erika’s fantasy world. Annie Girardot, simply credited as “The Mother”, makes quite an impression as Erika’s nosy, incredibly overbearing mother.
The Piano Teacher is not rated, but is most definitely for adults only.