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  • If you think piano teacher Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) in Michael Haneke's film "LA PIANISTE" is the ultimate degree in the personification of derangement, perversion and darkness, I've got news for you: the piano teacher in Elfriede Jellinek's novel "LA PIANISTE" (on which the film was based) is twice as "repulsive", "disgusting", "deranged" and even more fascinating -- though there can't be words enough to translate the level of artistic proficiency that Isabelle Huppert has reached here, above all other mortal actresses in activity today. And who else could have played this character with such emotional power, complete with the best piano playing/dubbing an actor could deliver?

    In the novel as in the film, there are two big antagonists to the "heroine" Kohut: her own mother (wonderful, wreck-voiced Annie Girardot, in a part originally intended for Jeanne Moreau) and Austria itself. The mother personifies Jellinek's perception of her native Austria as a country that deceptively and perversely encourages racist/fascist (or at least authoritarian) behavior, sexual and emotional repression, and, let's say, übermensch ideals which are impossible to keep today without the danger of a mental breakdown.

    "La Pianiste" also deals with a very powerful and delicate issue: how dangerous it is to reveal your innermost fantasies to the one (you think) you love. We tend to think our own sexual fantasies must be as exciting to others as they are to ourselves, which may turn out to be a huge, embarrassing and sometimes tragic mistake. Here, Kohut learns (?) the lesson in the most painful and humiliating of ways.

    It must be mentioned that Elfriede Jellinek is one of the best-known and praised authors in Austria and Europe (well, now she's got a Nobel Prize!) and that autobiographical passages can be inferred in her novel, as she herself was a pianist and had a reportedly difficult relationship with her mother. The novel also includes long passages about Kohut's childhood and adolescence so you kind of understand how she turned into who she is now. Haneke chose to hide this information in the film, forcing us to wonder how she got to be that way (don't we all know a Erika Kohut out there?). But he very much preserves the fabric of the book in his film: unbearable honesty, to the point where most secretive, "horrendous" feelings painfully emerge -- envy, cruelty, violence, jealousy, hate, misery, sadism, masochism, selfishness, perversion etc. All of them unmistakably human.

    I thought "La Pianiste" was a deeply moving film, very disturbing and thought-provoking, with a handful of unforgettable scenes, and that's just all I ask of movies. It also made me buy and be thrilled by the book, discover a fantastic author I hadn't read before, and listen again and again to Schubert - so, my thanks to Haneke, Jellinek and Isabelle!!! On the other hand, if you're looking for light entertainment, please stay away. My vote: 9 out of 10
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a fortyish piano teacher with deeply repressed sexual feelings. She lives with her mother (Annie Girardot), a controlling, oppressive woman, and deals with her erotic longings through voyeurism, visits to sex shops and self mutilation. She still sleeps with her mother. The film largely takes place at the conservatory where she teaches and at the apartment she shares with her mother.

    Huppert in an excellent on-disc interview says Erika longs to be loved but is frightened of seduction. She treats her students coldly but is drawn to one who is vain and handsome, and played by Benoit Magimel. The rest is the story of her creating and accepting a masochistic relationship with the young man that spirals down into her own psycho-sexual collapse.

    This movie won't be everyone's choice for an evening with the kids. It's a serious, disturbing film for adults that looks grimly at repressed feelings and emotional self destruction. For the grownups, it might put you off sado-masochism for a few days. It's a first-rate film.

    Isabelle Huppert is one of my favorite actors. Like Depardieu, she has no apparent screen vanity; she'll do what it takes for the role. She also has the rare ability to express deep, unsettling feelings with an absolute economy of expression. She is incredible in this film.

    I'm happy to have the movie, but to tell you the truth I'm not sure how many more times I'll watch it.
  • To be honest I had to go have a stiff drink after this film; I felt drained and my shoulders were knotted. I also had to talk the whole thing out with the friend I saw it with for a good half hour. Whatever else this movie is, it's not dull - you have to have respect for anything that produces such a visceral reaction, even if you couldn't claim to have 'enjoyed' the experience. (Anyone else I've talked to who's seen it has responded in much the same way.)

    The reason the film is so powerful is not simply because it deals with unpalatable subject-matter like sado-masochism and violently dysfunctional relationships - that on its own would leave no defence against a charge of exploitation. It packs a punch because whatever her deeply ingrained character flaws, however reprehensible her behaviour (and at one point that's VERY), the piano teacher Erika always retains your sympathy - you never forget the type of influences which might have made her what she is, while scenes as subtle as the one where she walks down a street of shoppers, being casually bumped into without apology, remind you of her utter isolation. Isabelle Huppert's performance is as brilliant as it is uncomfortable and I can't even imagine how she might have wound down after a day's filming.

    Appalling, compelling, horribly funny at times, but ultimately deeply despairing look at how people damage each other. View with caution.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I cannot remember the last time I was so affected by a film. I was not so much moved as emotionally shattered. When I left the theatre I had no sense of where I was or what it would take to get home. Now I can write about it, compare it, classify it, and put it out of my mind so I can move on to the next film, anything to distance myself from the experience.

    This is not an easy film to watch and is difficult to recommend. The images are graphic and, at times, sickening, yet I found The Piano Teacher to be a film that touches the soul and can be overwhelmingly beautiful in its dark poetry.

    The Piano Teacher continues the theme of alienation of Laurence Cantet's Time Out, but brings it to a new level of separation from feeling and sensitivity. It is a study of the sexual repression of a middle-aged piano teacher (Isabelle Huppert), turned into a perverse, self-hating, and destructive relationship with a student (Benoit Magimel). The brilliant and powerful performances of the actors led to best acting awards for both at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

    The Piano Teacher is based on a 1983 novel by Elfriede Jelinek in which she drew on her relationship with a domineering mother, and on her own repressed sexuality. Though the film ostensibly takes place in Vienna, there is no real sense of location, only interiors that could be anywhere in the world. "This is Never-Never land where nothing ends and nothing begins", Jelinek says. Adding to the intensity, the TV is always on in the apartment as an unwanted and intrusive presence.

    The Piano Teacher is filled with great music and it is a redeeming quality of the film to be able to listen to beautiful performances of Schubert and Schumann (no relation). Yet Haneke shows us people who are surrounded by great music and are numb to the emotional experience. The characters talk about the great composers with cold and intellectual certainty, yet entirely without passion.

    In the much-discussed toilet scene, Haneke's camera brings you so close to the action that all you can do is squirm. Although the camera never goes below the waist, the game being played of sexual domination and submission is clearly visible in the facial expressions of the characters. Ultimately, there is no release for the tension created by a character who seems torn between madness and reason, who acts on strange impulses, seems completely estranged from humanity, but remains so deeply human that we can recognize a part of ourselves on the big screen.

    The temptation is to say these people are not me. They are so sick. Yes, that's true, they are not you, but isn't there is a part of Erika that is becoming more and more recognizable every day? We are increasingly surrounded by people who find it difficult to express emotion, who seek satisfaction but are unable to provide it, who are desensitized to violence and any kind of human empathy, who commit murder "to see what it feels like".

    Haneke's film seems to be challenging the audience's request for sex and violence in movies. From what I have read, he has made a habit of making movies that shock and repel audiences and has decided that filmmakers and audiences alike are responsible for the cycle of creating and consuming violence.

    In a statement in 1996, Haneke said " My films are polemical statements against the American 'taking -by-surprise-before-one-can-think' cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator. It is an appeal for a cinema of insistent questioning in place of 'false-because-too-quick-answers', for clarifying distance in place of violating nearness. I want the spectator to think".

    He has definitely made us think and it is not a comfortable experience.
  • The Metaphysics of Self-Denial. This comment is bound to provoke some controversy by disagreeing with those who have easily classified this film as an indictment of sexual repression and self-denial. Michael Haneke (as a film-maker) and brilliant Isabelle Huppert (as the music professor Erika Kohut) place sexual relationships within a larger frame of reference -- that of the boundaries of one's own SELF.

    Erika is a highly intelligent, perfectionistic, ambitious and driven woman, who has single-mindedly and relentlessly identified her whole self with her work and achievement. In a sense, she is madly competitive and is painfully sensitive to any kind of attempt to "sideline" her or, even more importantly, to take her and her opinions for granted. She is no puppet in anyone's theatre. She is unpredictable and that's one of her major instruments of self-assertion. She is overly harsh on everybody surrounding her -- you need a pair of plyers to pull the most modest words of praise from her tight mouth. Observe Erika's body language in the film: accentuated pride, not an insignificant dose of aplomb and even snobbishness, cold sternness, and extremely caustic sense of humor.

    But look more carefully: Erika is most harsh towards herself. Unimaginably and cruelly harsh on herself! Erika's fear of sex is not just a function of her mother's repression and other hackneyed reasons examined in thousands of other movies. Erika is first and foremost obsessed with what entering into any kind of a relationship, be it casual sexual intercourse or an enduring love affair, means to her sense of personal independence. She is prepared to forego relationships and suffer as a consequence, rather than to "succumb" and be forever unsure of whether she had given in or emerged on top. She experiences all human relationships, and sexual ones above all else, as a field of power play, of asymmetrical exchange of influences. And there is one thing she apparently cannot withstand at all -- and that's a thought, yes -- just a thought!, of yielding. Her world is truly stark and Gothic, it's a world of maximalist and dramatic choices -- yes or no, on top or on the bottom, bright or dark. She craves the most violent contrasts and cannot stand living in the zones of shades of grey. She understands only super- or subordination in the purest of forms.

    Many would probably be correct to argue that Erika's obsession with remaining beyond anybody's influences is in many ways an outcome of her total mental slavery to her mother. And this is obviously a valid point. But the film's posing of the problem of sex in explicit power-related terms, in terms of a power game with fluid rules and irredeemably uncertain outcomes should be the primary focus of analysis. The Piano Teacher's finale is resounding in its relentless dramatism and even stoicism. Erika's conscious pursuit of emotional self-denial for the sake of what she deems her true (and avaricious) God -- self-sufficiency and professional greatness reveals that there is her war with her own humanity and her attempt to become godlike (as one poet said, 'eternal, cold and true'). Her God is completely indifferent to her sufferings and human flaws and needs -- He demands constant sacrifices, demonstrations of loyalty (not unlike Abraham's readiness to slay his own son Isaac at the Almighty's behest). In that sense, her character is not totally unlike the character of the obsessive and self-destructive chess player Alexander Luzhin from The Luzhin Defence or the driven John Nash from The Beautiful Mind (the parallels should not be extended). These movies both show the curative powers of love. There angelical women serve to relieve masculine anguish and self-destructiveness.

    Here a man discharges this function.

    Erika's sexuality is a function of all these considerations and complications. As a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, she is aware that any action in a relationship may be interpreted in radically divergent ways. Consequently, she alternates haltingly and hysterically between the sadistic and masochistic modes, obsessing over she is in "charge" of a relationship. This shows even in the horrendous scene when Erika asks her potential lover Walter to beat her up.

    Equally interesting and intriguing are the two other main characters in the movie, Walter and Erika's pesky and nosy mother. Walter's deep attraction to Erika reveals his inner demons -- his fantasy to serve as a redeemer, a liberator of sorts for a self-destructive woman. He desires to redeem the male part of humanity by welcoming Erika into the world of "normal" human sexuality, by curing her of her pains and doubts. The more he takes upon himself the mantle of a heroic redeemer, the more intense her battle of wills with him becomes, the more symbolic her conflicts with him grow. In a sense, Walter loses in the end! He deprives Erika of her virginity but she pretends to be dead and ice-cold during the act: the ultimate rejection and delegitimation!

    Erika's mother is probably the true monster of the movie. Avaricious vampire of a human being. She buzzes with her annoying commentaries and bileful complaints over the viewer's ear like a mosquitto that she is. A spiteful, repulsive character.

    This is a highly disturbing and extremely thought-provoking movie with absolutely no clear answers. Bravo, Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert for a brilliant movie and an equally brilliant and tense performance!
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Contains spoilers The Piano Teacher This is a case -psychologically speaking - of Oedipal alienation but for female type :namely the Electra complex (mother substitutes as father figure).We enter into Erika's life at a late stage of her development, where her mothers all encompassing influence and control has had many winters to sink its claws in.This story is the perfect example of the literary adage " render ,don't report" as the references and insights that elucidate the central character Erika's psyche ,are subtle and oblique at best.

    Upon studying her daily routine, her mannerisms, her body language ,one gets the sense of how pervasive her mothers influence has been.So much so that we witness the hardened , inured, cold, facade ,the icy veneer that has engrained itself and formed and defined her character and informed all parts of her existence ; a life of personal ennui.The subtext is thus - her mother, by being controlling centrepiece of the family , has so isolated her daughter and steered her into an ultra-disciplined life, which has manifested itself in the mastery of the piano, and in so doing stifled any claim for Erika to learn to engage in social interactions with emotional normalcy . Whilst sublimated ,one gets the impression that Erika's mother actually has resented her from birth and secretly desired a boy instead.Further ,Erika's subject of expertise is in the field that her father, who went mad ,pursued (again the mothers influence is seen to play a part).

    The alienation of Erika through her mother ,has been so complete that she has been unable to enter into any consentual adult emotional exchanges.We observe clear but subtle episodes revealing her mothers place in her world.Erika still sleeps in the same bed as her mother despite having a bedroom of her own.Erika's male interest Walter, says in a pique of rage , "your daughter should have a key to her own bedroom ".Mother incessantly rings after her when Erika is out giving lessons or playing in private recitals, thereby suggesting that for Erika to be in a place that mother doesn't know about -simply cannot be countenanced.We observe Erika visiting a sex shop booth straight after giving a recital, as if to cleanse herself of the taint of the crushing inner oppression that is her lifestyle, to wash the veneer away for a short time, to shed the straight - jacket.

    One witnesses a world of grey for Erika,her fierce and resolute exterior masking her inability and her manifest desire to break through such walls.So ,immersed in her lifes work from a young age, endless hours at the keyboard, and with a none-to-subtle rejoinder by mother dear to "never ever let them be better than you" , Erika craves emotional freedom ,wildly desires to break the shackles but knows in her heart that she in unable to accomplish such : further she knows subconsciously that she no longer knows what this 'freedom' even is.

    Such ongoing psychological torment, with concomitant repression ,has led Erika to a high degree of helplessness, which in turn has led to self-loathing and has had her integrate such low value of self into her internal workings, which see her using the natural instinct of her libido to manifest her self hatred .Thus her sado masochistic tendencies.We see her blithely engage in genital mutilation and we know she has done this before.She so desires to be loved , knows instinctually how it could be , infers some sense of love's potential from peripheral events around her as she has grown up, but is totally inept in putting such into practice.

    Her sexual identity ,being inextricably defined now through her self loathing and sadomasochism ,has been steered into fascination with things external ,things that society has taught her are 'sexual'. Since she is granite ,her inured barrier keeping everything external at bay ,she has been able to 'feel' and use her sexual desires in the enjoyment of viewing things that are typically more a male domain.It is clear at the sex shop with video booth ,that she has been here many times before, Erika stares down the loiterers outside the booth, all males who are challenged and feel uncomfortable about a real flesh and blood woman entering their fantasy domain.The way she stares at the screen blankly ,but intently ,whilst inhaling odour of semen shows the inner workings of her turmoil. Her hardened visage is able to comfortably gaze down the men outside but she is more comfortable to watch than engage.

    Within the context of her classes, her life , she meets Walter ,who shows keen interest in her.We suspect that she is doomed to fail from the start with him. Her life and the film has a pall of inevitable downward spiral with her confronting her psyche, with only one possible outcome.Despite the fact that she tells him "i want want you want" in a sexual sense ,she also insists many times that he read the list of desires she ,naturally, has written down for him (not told him face to face). Contrary to norms of society that she must be aware of ,she still writes down all the perversions that her self hatred have ,over many many years , seemed to have defined for her as her means of escape from the vacuum of the shell she resides in .She wants to be beaten ,she wants all control stripped from her ,she wants to be hurt ,she wants to be degraded : we have a little girl crying out - in essence she wants to FEEL ,she wants to be LOVED.

    We are shown Erika late in the film , in bed with her mother , suddenly cry out and look to attack her mother ,try feebly to communicate with her ,to get through.There is a latent desire to strangle her I'm sure in her body language but her efforts don't last long as deep down she knows she can never do it .It is the paradoxical dilemma of having being repressed and sublimated by one individual yet it is that individuals approval that one seeks and which is never forthcoming : thus the vicious circle.

    We see her place glass into the coat pocket of her top student -Erika feels a little resentment toward her i would suspect in most part because she reminds Erika of herself and it is for this reason Erika places the glass in her pocket so as to help the student escape the morass of a life Erika knows all too well.Erika can see the same behaviours and outcomes with the students mother as her own.It is unconscionable to think of such arrant and willful violence against a young girl but from Erika's perspective ,such an act is somehow breaking the cycle,changing the girls destiny -to Erika ,for the better .Erika does this in a cold callous way from her visage it seems ,but twisted logic suggests it is a 'kind' thing to do. Erika ever so gently chides the girls mother in an interview after the accident, where the mother says "we have given up so much"( in piano training) and Erika reminds her that it is her daughter that has done so and this is THE central theme of the film.

    There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about this film .Many have labeled Erika 'disgusting' and 'sick'.We are not spoon fed the reason why she is as seen.We are seeing the end product.This film is not like many American releases where the prevailing sensibility is that the audience demand everything be explicated and neatly tied up with overly simplistic reasons for at best, bland motivations.To see Erika as perverted and loathsome ,is to miss the core of the character - she surely should evoke PITY.The sexual minutiae here are not the point.The performance of Huppert is stunning, to say the least.To maintain such neutrality of facial expression ,the merest flicker giving us a clue to Erika and her desires and coping mechanisms.A difficult role ,masterfully handled.Dross in the hands of many, somehow utterly poignant and meaningful as seen through her subtleties.

    The nub of the film , as i saw it, was the scene where Walter storms in and is determined to somehow 'give her what she wants'.The fantasy Erika has constructed for herself (her sadomasochistic wishes as described above) , that somehow to her were to be liberating ,fulfilling or just plain validating ,go horribly horribly wrong.The one idea that she had built up and held onto for years ,the wanton expression of her libido ,where she could eschew control and somehow regain indepence of self, of spirit ,of something (this film never pretends to be neat and easy) turns out to be an utterly pathetic ,degrading ,dispiriting misery.She is hit and kicked in the face ,and lies there in her own blood, and she is not free.She lies there bewildered,apathetic, half whispering to "please stop", and it dawns on her that the tightly constructed mechanism that had become her fantasy was nothing short of a farce.She lies there and it dawns on her that even her inner hope has failed her , been nothing like she imagined and that her drab existence will not change, her psychological conundrum will not be resolved.Of course - there was no other possible outcome.

    In a final denouement and act of rebellion - importantly done in a way where no one sees - Erika goes to the recital that the student can no longer perform -as Erika's mother says "its ONLY a recital" - in the deserted foyer knowing she will leave the audience sitting there waiting - stabs herself in the upper left chest - clearly stabbing for the heart, a death blow intended.The tortured look on Hupperts face for a brief moment is in stark contrast to the usual way we see her -maybe we are peering into her soul and witnessing her beast.Perhaps it is a symbol of the heart needing to be excised , it has taken too much suffering.As we see her walk away and out of building with a wound, we are left piteously wondering...saddened.
  • mcnally10 September 2002
    I saw this film at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. La Pianiste reinforces the "Austrians=grim" thesis I'm formulating. Isabelle Huppert won a well-deserved Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal of a woman who, in her efforts to attain the artistic ideal, loses her humanity. Trapped by her talent, she suppresses her emotions and her sexuality until they can only be expressed in twisted and terrifying ways. When a younger student falls in love with her, our hopes rise, but are soon dashed by the realization that she cannot experience love the way others can. It is too late for her, and the film's final 30 harrowing minutes are, tellingly, devoid of the beautiful music that carried the first 90 minutes. The message seems to be that the music itself is not enough without the life and beauty it's describing.
  • As with all Haneke films, make your own decision--don't be swayed by what you read and if you are interested in someone using the medium of film for their own unique ends, see it yourself. Isabelle Huppert is stunning in this film--combined with Haneke, these two never pull their punches. Haneke reels us in with the lure of golden boy, Benoit Magimel, but this is an anti-romance as much as Funny Games was an anti-thriller. You'll have to force yourself to watch much of it and the catharsis is much more in the range of sustained anxiety than any kind of emotional release but it's incredibly nervy and thought provoking; Haneke continues to hold up a mirror to how desensitised Western civilization is or has become. People may turn their noses up at this but it's only taking what Solondz did in Happiness a few steps further. While grounded in reality, much of what Erika (Huppert) does can be viewed as emotional metaphor. I'm not recommending it but I wouldn't dissuade you definitely divides people but given it's largely about repression--that's no surprise.
  • Definitely NOT for the faint-of-heart or for those seeking passive entertainment, this film is a masterpiece of portraiture of a highly talented and disturbed artist – a perfect illustration of the idea that genius is considered but a short step from insanity.

    It has been many months since I viewed this film, and I find myself turning the film over in my head quite often. That – to me – is the mark of a well-done film – or any work of art, for that matter.

    I have never since seen a prodigiously talented performer without wondering what their day-to-day life and relationships must be like. This film stayed with me despite my revulsion to its "ugliness" – the discomfiture it engenders.

    Highly recommended!
  • Isabelle Huppert must be one of the greatest actresses of her or any other generation. "La Pianiste" truly confirms it. As if that wasn't enough, Annie Girardot plays her mother and Annie Girardot is one of the greatest actresses of her or any other generation. So, as you may well imagine, those pieces of casting are worth the horror we're put through. Isabelle and Annie play characters we've never seen before on the screen. A mother and daughter yes but with such virulent fearlessness that sometimes I was unable even to blink or to breath. Personally, I don't believe in the director's intentions, I don't believe they (the intentions that is) go beyond the shocking anecdote and the ending made me scream with frustration but I was riveted by the story written in the face of the sensational Huppert and the fierceness of Girardot's strength. I highly recommend it to cinema lovers anywhere and to the collectors of great performances like me, you can't afford to miss "La Pianiste"
  • Warning: Spoilers
    First let me put on the record, Isabelle Huppert gives a dynamite performance which is both disturbing,and ultimately very sad. It is a hard film to watch as the subject matter is quite disturbing. It is not the Caffe Latte S&M of pretty young twentysomethings exploring their boundaries here, it delves into the true nature of sexual perversity. Her character is a middle aged loner, successful musician and teacher , but incapable of having any type of life let alone a functioning relationship.Her sex life is also one of unhealthy obsession involving frequenting sex shops, voyeurism and sexual self mutilation. It also gets revealed as the film progresses that she holds deeply disturbing sexual fantasies that involve humiliation and violence being committed upon her. When she becomes involved with a student who has become infatuated with her, and tries to achieve the emotional salvation she longs for by sharing these obsessions with the young man there is tragic results.

    , Loneliness is a terrible burden to bear and part of the strength of the film is that the director, never reduces Huppert to a freak show. Her pain is apparent even though she is at many times a fairly odious (and occasionally downright psycopathic character) Hints of what has led her to this situation are given, the unhealthy co-dependant relationship she has with her mother, the perfectionism and driven nature that pervades her working life, madness in the family.In the end it doesnt really matter how it came about as it is an examination of a person in that state and how they fall apart both emotionally and mentally that is being examined here. There are many scenes which stayed in my mind long after the film ended: 2 particular scenes stood out for me:

    The scene both embarassing,horrific and also incredibly sad as the young student reads with disgust a letter Huppert has written to him in front of her detailing her sadomashocistic fantasies that she harbours.We are torn between horror at the graphic nature of the degradation she fetishizes and feel sorry for the horrible and humiliating rejection she receives at the hands of the young student.

    Also the gut wrenching final scene , the act of self mutilation and look of madness and despair on her face, the director has captured the despair and horror of so much of human existence.

    An important film to see but dont expect to be uplifted!
  • 'The Piano Teacher' is the third Haneke movie I've seen. I didn't like the other two ('Funny Games' I thought was a cop out and 'Code Unknown' a bore) so I expected little from this one. However I was wrong to prejudge it. It's a very good movie, powerful, thought provoking and features a superb performance from Isabelle Huppert. She plays a Erika Kohut, a brilliant but highly repressed pianist. Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) is a young man who is very sure of himself who attempts to seduce her. The thing is she is a deeply disturbed individual and he can't cope when her true nature is uncovered. I don't want to go into any great detail about Erika or her mental state. The movie reveals this slowly and beautifully. I was impressed that there was no attempt at pop psychology or pat explanations that you would expect in a Hollywood melodrama with similar subject matter. Huppert is extraordinary throughout. I can't think of many contemporary Hollywood actresses who could have played this role as convincingly. 'The Piano Teacher' is not for those who can't face the dark side of human nature. It's far from being a life affirming "feel good" movie. If the difficult subject matter of 'Irreversible' or 'The War Zone' interested you then this is your kind of movie. I can't say I "enjoyed" it, but it was a worthwhile, rewarding experience and how often do you get to say that these days?
  • The Piano Teacher (2001)

    This is a difficult movie. It's difficult to watch at times, if you take it seriously. But I think it was difficult to film, to write, to act.

    The premise is subtle even if it sounds sensational--show the inner mind and inner life of a brilliant woman who is mentally ill. She has compulsive issues, I think, and sexual repression that has led her to masochistic and finally sadistic extremes. She is admirable in some external way for her self-control which reads, to an outsider, as cold precision, the kind needed to be an extraordinary classical pianist.

    But the movie takes us inside her life, first to the unhealthy relationship with her mother, then the oddly stern and indifferent role she takes with her advanced students. Finally there is a young man who sees only her ability, and her external beauty. (This woman, Erika, is played by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert.) He is a pianist of unusual talent, but he wants not to concertize, but to live life. He plays hockey. He has friends. He smiles warmly. He is, in short, a healthy normal and rather handsome young man.

    And he falls for Erika. This is where the movie gets weirder and weirder, but also more challenging. They play an intense game of sexual chicken, at first, and lots of head games. He knows she's superior to him in some way--older, more severe---but he has no idea about her slanted view of life and of sex. He wants her. He becomes a pupil of hers just for that reason. She pretends not to care, or to rebuff him (in part this isn't pretense because she's afraid). Finally a couple of serious and demented confrontations occur.

    And things unravel in a very interesting way. Some people will find it simply sick and unwatchable. It also happens very slowly--if the film has an obvious flaw, it's the pace. It's in love with itself far too much. But if you get into that flow, and can take the pain that will rise up, then you will at least be greatly affected. That's more than most movies can say.

    It's all quite in ernest. I don't think it's a bit campy or playing games with the viewer. It's really trying to get at this woman's psyche--and the young man's, since he gets in deeper than he intended. It's filmed with terrific planning and visual panache. And it makes some kind of deranged sense, too. In fact, there are probably more people in these kinds of situations than I'll even know, and to them I say give this a careful look.
  • In the first twenty minutes we are swept away by several powerfully portrayed emotions: a suffocating and overbearing mother has a violent argument with her live-in 40yr old daughter; a piano teacher (and professor of music)'s love for her pupils expressed in unswerving critical appraisal; the joy that music can inspire both in the listener and the performer. Within this short space of time our senses have been assaulted convincingly with very real characters. We are also swept away by powerfully performed music and shown the difference between great and mediocre performance with a lot of attention to nuance. Such material alone would have been the basis for an outstanding film of widespread appeal. But the trend in French cinema being what it is, it goes deeper, exploring the repressed sexuality of the teacher, the expression of sexual freedom and subsequent breakdown within a context of passionate attraction, and the inevitable cycle of real abuse. We are drawn to her suffering and, at least initially, wonder how much suffering may be related to the accomplishment of genius, particularly in the composers she admires. The Piano Teacher contains graphic dialogue and depictions of sex and brutality in scenes that some people might rather not watch. The scenes are essential to the dilemmas which the film seeks to raise and so can hardly be called gratuitous. A great film it may be, but mainstream viewing it is not.
  • jotix10024 March 2006
    Warning: Spoilers
    Erika Kohut is a woman with deep sexual problems. At the start of the film, we see her arriving home late. When her older mother protests, Erika goes into a frenzy, attacking the older woman without pity. Erika, as it turns out, is a musical teacher of a certain renown in the conservatory where she teaches. When we next see her, she is the model of composure, but she shows a cruel side in the way she attacks a young male student because she feels he is wasting his time, and hers. The same goes for the insecure Anna, a talented girl who Erika hates, maybe because she sees in the young woman a promise that she is not willing to promote.

    At the end of the day, we watch Erika as she goes into an amusement area and proceeds to one of the cabins where pornographic material is shown. Erika is transfixed as she watches the things that are being performed on the screen. On another occasion, Erika comes to a drive-in where a movie is in progress. Her attention goes toward a parked car in which, two lovers are performing a sex act. The camera lingers on Erika as she is lost in reverie watching what the two lovers are doing, until she is surprised by the young man inside the car. Erika flees horrified she's been discovered.

    When a wealthy couple invites Erika to perform in a recital in their opulent home, she meets an eager young man, Walter, who is related to the hosts. Walter is immediately taken with Erika's playing; the young man is a talented pianist himself. His eagerness to compliment Erika is met with skepticism on her part. Walter decides to audition for Erika's master class, and is accepted.

    Thus begins Walter pursuit of Erika, who is taken aback when she realizes what the young man's motives really are. In turn, Erika, begins to fantasize about Walter in ways that only her mind could, imagining what she would like him do when, and if, they get together. Walter gets turned off by the letter Erika has written to him, detailing sexual acts that are repugnant to the young man.

    The film's ending, reminded us of the last sequence of Mr. Haneke's current "Cache". We are taken to a concert hall where Erika is going to perform. She is seen stalking the lobby looking for the arrival of Walter, who goes on into the hall without noticing her. Erika's expression to the camera reveals a lot more of her state of mind in that last minutes of the film. As she flees the lobby area after inflicting a wound on herself, the camera abandons her and concentrates on the building's facade that seems to stay on the screen for a long time.

    "La Pianiste" is a personal triumph for Isabelle Huppert. This magnificent actress does one of her best appearances on the screen, guided by the sure hand of Michael Haneke, one of the most interesting directors working today. Ms. Huppert's works with economic gestures, yet, she projects so much of her soul as she burns the screen with her Erika.

    The supporting cast does wonders under the director's guidance. Annie Girardot, always excellent, is perfect as Erika's mother. She seems to be the key of whatever went wrong with her daughter. There is a hint of incest that is played with subtleness in the context of the film. Benoit Magimel is perfectly cast as Walter. This young actor does a wonderful job in the film as the young man, so in love with a woman that is possessed by demons, that he'll never be able to chase away or get her to love him in a normal manner.

    Michael Haneke films are always disturbing to watch, yet they offer so many rewards because he dares to go where other men don't. The magnificent music heard in the film are mainly by Schubert and Schumann, two composers that are Erika's own favorites. The movie is helped tremendously by Christian Berger's cinematography.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    The only director who really matters right now is Michael Haneke. The 60-ish Austrian is only just now becoming known to American audiences (despite having been making films for a decade), because in this age of false freedom and faux radicalization, he's the real thing: a genuine free thinker and radical.

    This makes his work scarily demanding, but on top of that, it's also relentlessly un-sensational: while he works on only the most extreme ideas and projects, Haneke suppresses all superficial gratification. Heads don't blow off, guns never fire, and nothing ever explodes - even though there's a high degree of emotional violence, the release mechanisms of cinema are completely suppressed. Catharsis is to be excised, avoided, or parodied; Aristotle's polemics are treated as laughably passe; most of Haneke's work ends abruptly, intentionally doesn't resolve, or actually re-starts at square one. As a result, his movies have been called "torture mechanisms", although his method is completely understandable: in a world of movies designed entirely as mindless catharsis, Haneke is staking out its antithesis as the province of his art: he's focusing on what everyone else has been avoiding.

    The results can be cruel but are always exhilarating. Even I can't quite recommend "Funny Games", in which he turns the revenge cheapie (think "Last House on the Left") on the audience itself, forcing the viewer to suffer along with his victims. With its suffocated family dog, obliterated little boy, and eventual meta-narrative, "Funny Games" is probably the most disturbing intellectual statement since "A Clockwork Orange".

    But while at first I felt that Haneke was Kubrick's heir, I'm becoming more and more aware of his debts to Kieslowski. In structural terms, Kubrick worked musically, and tried to impregnate the image itself with a novelistic depth. Haneke, on the other hand, avoids impressing us with his technique; instead he designs submerged structures and paradigms which illuminate but never directly state their themes. There's never a memorable shot in Haneke, much less a clever camera angle, or "dazzling" sequence; he simply disdains all that; he doesn't "love light", or edit with "a sense of rhythm"; somehow he just knows how to grip you without them. In "Code Unknown" he actually parodies the tracking shot - sometimes the camera keeps going when the characters have stopped, sometimes vice versa. In fact the one masterfully "suspenseful" sequence in the movie turns out to be a film WITHIN the film - Haneke just throws it in there to show that yes, he knows exactly how to do that, too.

    Which brings us to his latest, "The Piano Teacher", with Isabelle Huppert, the first of his films to achieve even an arthouse release in the U.S., and certainly the most interesting film so far this year. Part of this new visibility, of course, is due to Huppert's presence, and part of it is due to the subject matter: everybody thinks they "understand" movies about frigid, bitchy women who are sexually perverted, and everyone expects them to be dirtily exciting beneath a patina of intellectual respect. In other words, they're dependable arthouse fodder, since that crowd loves nothing more than looking down its nose at other people's sexual mores.

    Of course, with Haneke, the arthouse is in for a surprise. Rather like those who were shocked that "Eyes Wide Shut" did not give them an erection, some critics have had to turn away from scenes in which the main character nonchalantly sniffs semen-crusted tissues in a porno booth, or cuts her labia with a razor to "simulate" menstruation. What's almost worse is that these events usually occur just out of our line of sight, turning us into failed voyeurs - the furtive sex all happens with the characters mostly clothed, although their note-perfect performances tell you exactly where they are in the course of each act. This is de rigeur for Haneke, but it sends some folks into a tizzy (Where's the sudden, split-second shot of the bloody wound to make me scream? They can sense Haneke is messing with them, but unlike with, say, Tarentino, they can't figure out why. There are no ironically-framed immature gratifications here; what's all this FOR? (They just can't figure out that they have to figure it out.)

    To be fair, there's a lot to figure out. Most critics have grabbed onto the old "repression" handle to explain Huppert's character, Erika Kohut, a sadistic piano teacher at a top Viennese academy. Erika lives alone with her aging mother (Annie Girardot) in an abusive psychological "marriage" in which the two women even sleep in two beds pushed together. So the "repression" handle seems good as far as it goes, but it doesn't really go very far - Mother's comment that "we're a passionate family" after Erika hits her full in the face is the first hint that repression ain't what this is all about.

    Erika's relationship with her mother may be the starting point for her emotional state, but she's hardly repressed: in fact, she's in full, chilly flower. She has her own theory of Schubert (her specialty) - something about being poised at the brink of madness, and the composer's desolate "Winterreise" is practically her theme, with its creepy lyrics about hounds pulling at their chains. Erika is fully conscious of her desires, and knows exactly what she wants - she just can't get it in the "normal" course of human events. So she's reduced to various forms of voyeurism. Perhaps the film's eeriest image is of her wandering among the cars at a drive-in movie (in Vienna?) like a lonely ghost; she's looking for a couple in coitus to watch and climax with (and eventually she finds one, with humiliating results).

    Clearly, she equates romantic ecstasy with cruelty (which is not the same thing as repression) - and music itself, which operates in the film as a metaphor for love, has become a theater of sadism for her. She berates and humiliates her students, even mutilating the hands of one (this scene, in which Erika places broken glass in the girl's pockets, is one of the most chilling evocations of malice aforethought in all film).

    Into this frozen maelstrom wanders Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), a young pianist who's handsome, talented, sweet, and conceited. Klemmer is intrigued, then obsessed by Erika's icy disdain for his charms - which we can tell have always gotten him exactly what he wanted. Using his frustration as leverage, Erika slowly ropes him into becoming her partner in her own version of "love". This involves, of course, sadomasochism and degradation - only it's to be performed per her instructions exactly (and they run to several pages, single-spaced), in a way which will take vengeance on (of course) her mother.

    Klemmer declares Erika "sick" - he's used to the usual give-and-take of standard sex, and he certainly doesn't hate women. But as he appreciates that domination of Erika physically actually means submission to her WILL, he reacts in a way that is subtly horrifying. Here Haneke plays his hidden trump card, for in Klemmer's "forcing" of normal lovemaking on Erika, we perceive that he is actually committing rape. In a word, he "breaks" her, and we can tell that she'll never recover. Her last horrifying gesture (and Huppert is unforgettable) somehow combines rejection with a kind of animal-like defiance.

    As usual, Haneke has sprung a kind of trap, and turned the tables on the audience. How are we to dismiss Erika, when her perversities - all mirror images of idealized love - have produced such a cruel reaction in her sunny love-god - and in us? We're left floating in a kind of moral netherworld, like the singer of "Winterreise", in which we appreciate that our erotic pleasures have always had their dark twin of erotic disgust. And how are to say that this dark twin can't produce the same kind of transcendence? We deny it with no authority, as we - with Klemmer - are provoked to actual domination of Erika, just as she wished, but this time in OUR control, not hers. We want to hurt her - but why?

    "The Piano Teacher", of course, is therefore concerned with the most basic issues of humanism - but it's an inquiry, not a treatise (this is where Haneke differs from his character, although they certainly share something in common). Unlike what all the pop critics label "subversive", this movie is ACTUALLY subversive - it gets under your assumptions and stays there. And for this, of course, it will probably be limited to a short run on the East and West coasts. But watch for it on video.
  • diand_26 July 2005
    The novel of Elfriede Jelinek where La Pianiste is based upon is an interesting feminist study of suffocation of women by men set against an autobiographic background. Die Klavierspielerin is also a personal settlement of her life with her mother. Jelinek herself studied at a Conservatory in Vienna. Later works of her are more an indictment of the suffocation of life in Austria, a common element in Austrian post-war culture as the country has never come to grips with its troubling past.

    In the movie less emphasis is paid to the relationship with the mother and so the source of Erika's behavior remains largely unexplained here. Erika's father dies and mother and daughter show no emotion at all. In the beginning there is a short fight between mother and daughter about control the mother has on her life. The TV is always on, thereby explaining that mother and daughter don't live life to the fullest at all. Later on she sleeps in one bed with her mother; her mother suddenly starts to warn her for failure if not performing at her best, a theme often to be found in Jewish culture. Huppert is apt for this role and some years earlier did another movie where Jelinek did part of the writing (Malina).

    The glass-breaking scene has a double meaning. Not only does Erica want to punish Walter for his attention to and interest in another student, she also sees a reflection in that girl's mother of her own mother; in a way she wants to help her preventing having the same life as her with no personal choices of her own.

    By entering into the relationship with Walter, a classic male/female struggle starts. Although women in Western societies are nowadays more equal than ever before, Jelinek wants to say that women and men are still strictly attached to certain role models that are almost all power-driven (among which sexual role models). Her sexual desires, although extreme and communicated in the most awkward of possible ways, can not be realized in a relationship. The relationship turns into a sexual battleground, in order to be loved and not lose Walter she has to give in to him, so he eventually vindicates and her total disintegration as a woman starts. The self-inflicted wound in the end only confirming her loss and being a 'punishment' for her choices.

    The movie's distant and cold-hearted style reflects the book, so there is congruency there. But the movie lacks interesting camera-work as all shots are long and static shots that only move sometimes to follow the characters. I find this combination often deadly for a movie. Compare this to Tarkovsky (long but moving shots) or Koreeda (short but static), both of which can work. Cinematography is almost absent here. Haneke can create shock value from his actors and by editing: The transition of the first traditional part to the sex store is rather abrupt, although not on the level of editorial transitions Kubrick makes in Eyes Wide Shut for example. There are some good moments: There is no music when the end credits run, the use of Schubert (although used better in Barry Lyndon) as indication of 'decay', Erika never performing for a large audience herself, the mother has no name.

    On her personal website, Elfriede Jelinek has commented about the movie making process. Not only does she see the meticulous planning process associated with making a movie as restricting and compares that to the choices one has to plan his or her own life. On that website she has also written a very interesting review of Lynch's Lost Highway, one of the more important movies ever made. If ever a director like that could have taken on this intriguing book.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    It's always the quiet ones, isn't it? It's always the detached, the reserved and the remote who turn out to be the kinkiest. But then again, if you were in your forties, still lived at home and had a possessive mother, you might be a bit off-kilter too.

    The opening to The Piano Teacher sees Erika (Isabelle Huppert), a rather prim middle-aged woman, returning home only to be confronted by her mother. Her mother is outraged that she's late and she wants to know where she's been. She even grabs Erika's purse and checks her bankbook! Erika then grabs her mother by the hair while they call each other names. But after a brief tussle they're in each other's arms, apologising for their behaviour. These two people are highly dependant on one another. And in a weird way they're more like a married couple than mother and daughter; they even sleep in the same bed. Needless to say, it's not a particularly healthy domestic situation.

    A description of the opening scene would kind of suggest that Erika is perhaps a shy character, someone who's been bullied ceaselessly by a parent and someone who, as a result, is lacking in confidence. But actually Erika is supremely confident. She's also extremely intelligent and authoritative – her students are in awe of her and are probably more than a little bit scared of her, too. But for whatever reason she's locked in this hellish relationship with her mother.

    Near the beginning of the film there's a moment when mother and daughter are going to a recital. They get into one of those old-fashioned lifts, and just as they're closing the metal screen, a young man runs to get in with them. They slam the screen shut on him. The outside world is being locked out. However, the young man is going to the same recital, so they meet him again. And the man, who introduces himself as Walter, tries his best to charm Erika. But all the while her mother is watching from a distance with jealous eyes.

    Eventually Walter becomes a student of Erika's. However, at first she's not too happy about it. She says he's not motivated enough and she says he's too showy. In a way she's unnerved by him because he's the complete opposite of her. But she's also kind of attracted. When Walter plays at the recital she goes from not being interested to being silently captivated – she even manages something approaching a smile. And then when she becomes his tutor, and after it becomes clear that Walter's interested in her, she follows him after lessons – and again she manages something like a smile when she sees him playing ice hockey.

    But the extent of Erika's feelings aren't known until a scene during a concert rehearsal. One of her pupils, a timorous young girl, is supposed to be playing piano. But she turns up late and she's so nervous she's got diarrhoea. This propels Walter into action. He becomes her knight in shining armour; he puts his arm around her, makes her laugh and gives her confidence. But Erika, jealous at the attention her highly-strung student is getting, quietly exits the hall and heads for where all the coats are being kept. She then puts broken glass in the pockets of the girl's jacket. Erika's envy is quiet but deadly.

    But Erika also harms herself. There's one scene where she calmly and methodically uses a mirror to cut her private parts. Completely smothered, this is one of her few outlets. But she can't even cut herself without her mother interrupting her by calling dinner. However, Erika is well used to this and efficiently cleans up the bathroom. And there's a nice touch of dark humour when the mother sees blood on her daughter's ankle. She thinks she's menstruating and uses that to explain her daughter's mood.

    But sex is where the real Erika comes out. In one scene she goes to a sex shop to watch hardcore porn. She even sniffs a pile of used tissues. But what's most telling is how the men in the shop react. Erika is completely comfortable. The men, though, are rather disturbed. They don't want a real woman shattering the fantasies they're there to indulge.

    And you could argue that the film is partly about men's unease with female sexuality. For example, Walter worships Erika and says he's in love with her, but when she opens up to him he's disgusted. He didn't know what Erika liked – she writes a letter, telling him her desires; she wants to be tied up and beaten. This doesn't fit into his preconceived idea of her, and as a result, he's thoroughly repulsed.

    But what's great about the film is that it doesn't judge Erika. We're not asked to laugh at her or consider her nothing more than an oddity. After all, it's probably easier to change the colour of the sky than it is to change someone's sexual desires. No, what's disgusting is Walter's reaction to Erika. She begins to open up to him, to show some vulnerability, and rather than handle the situation like a man and say that he's not interested in that sort of thing, he humiliates her. And he doesn't humiliate her once, he does it a number of times.

    And this of course leads to the savagely unhappy ending. Erika is due to perform in a concert, but she waits in the lobby for Walter to appear – she has a knife in her purse. But when he arrives, he arrives in a large group and she can only watch. She then takes the knife and stabs herself. It seems that she's aiming for her heart but she only gets her shoulder. Then she calmly leaves and walks off. She's not dead, but she might as well be; she'll never open up to anyone again.
  • 'The Piano Teacher' is a brutal exploration and analysis of a woman's fetishes and sexual urges. Erika is an anti-hero, she is not someone who evokes complete empathy, but the complexity of character makes her extremely interesting to analyse and interpret. Right from the very first scene Haneke establishes a very abusive relationship between Erika and her mother. The mother(who is never given a name to add to her persona) is an immensely overbearing woman who still has a huge hold and influence on the life of the middle-aged Erika. It is also hinted at that her father underwent mental disintegration which may have also had an impact on Erika's mental state during her formative years. It is slowly revealed that the sexual repression that Erika has had to live under due to her mother, has resulted in her developing various sexual fetishes like voyeurism which range from some interesting habits like frequenting porn stores to some absolutely disturbing habits like self-mutilations. She sees these somewhat twisted sexual fetishes as her way to defy the restrictions placed on her by her mother. However this narrow attitude of viewing sex as a means to defy her mother instead of a way to make love made her build a wall around her making her distant and immune to the possibility of developing any feelings for someone.

    'The Piano Teacher' for me revolves around the concept of control. Erika never had complete control over her life. Her sexual voyeurism and fetishes were her way to take some control back. Along with this she also overbearingly controlled the performances of her students which at times involved full-fledged intimidation. As soon as she starts developing feelings for Walter, we see her feel uneasy, very flustered and tentative. This is because opening up to him and revealing her complete self(along with her fetishes) to someone would involve giving away the bit of control that she wants. The dynamic between Erika and Walter in its progression and in the way the control shifts from one character to another, feels natural and considering the climax of the film, very believable due to the inherent risks that were always going to appear from Erika's point of view.

    Haneke doesn't engage in too much flashy camera like he did in 'Code Unknown' with the numerous long shots. The long unbroken shots are here too, but they are used sparingly for crucial scenes. Haneke uses a lot of subtlety in the way he treats the characters and the sensitive subjects with some examples of genuinely brilliant staging and direction of potentially risky scenes. Another thing that Haneke focuses on is close-ups and reaction shots of Isabelle Huppert, which brings me to Huppert's performance. This freaking woman has the ability to convey 25 different emotions with one single look or a subtle raising of the eyebrow or a subtle chuckle. She has the skill to be commanding as well as vulnerable at any moment and Haneke makes use of this with the close-ups and extended shots where the camera just rests on her face. This film will certainly not be as effective without that central performance. Benoît Magimel and Annie Girardot deserve admiration for their performances too.

    This is not a film for everyone. But the complexity of the characters and Haneke's uninhibited and piercing treatment of sexuality, control and power make this film worth a strong recommendation.
  • In Vienna, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a sick single forty years old piano teacher of the music conservatory. She lives alone with her dominative mother and due to her repressed sexuality, she self-mutilates her sex, visits porno shops in the nights looking for peep-shows and has a weird and abnormal behavior regarding sex. In a recital, Erika is introduced to Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), an young student of engineering and excellent pianist, and he falls in love with her. Their perverted affair destabilizes the fragile emotional control of Erika. This weird tale of repressed sexuality of a woman has magnificent performances of Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel, very well supported by Annie Girardort. The beginning of the story is amazing and Isabelle Huppert has one of the best performances of her stunning career, I even dare to say that it is one of her best roles. Although recommended only to specific audiences, this complex and sick love story is an excellent film. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek won the 2004 Nobel Prize in literature two days ago. The direction of Michael Haneke is precise and sharp as usual. If 'Le Pianist' were an American movie, it would probably be among the IMDb Top 250. My vote is nine.

    Title (Brazil): 'A Professora de Piano' (The Piano Teacher')
  • Haneke's `Seventh Continent' is the most depressing movie I've seen in my whole life but after `La Pianiste' I would not want to miss anything this uncompromising Austrian director does. I'm not sure the movie would work without the great, haughty, fierce, indomitable, unforgettable Isabelle Huppert. Often Huppert has been cold and cruel and elegant and desirable, but never has she been so sick and twisted as here, and she goes the limit. There is no more fearless and confident actress in movie history and none I'd go so out of my way to watch.

    I gritted my teeth and entered the theater expecting no fun. The opening credits won me over, though. The way the sound ends when the names come on, between each vignette, show an ability to make you take notice, to make the routine fresh. Each vignette is different; in each Erika Kohut, the piano teacher (Huppert) is cruel to another piano student in a different way. I could see something compulsively watchable coming. When the razor-in-the-bathroom scene came, I looked away: I'd been warned. Then I peeked: it wasn't so bad. Most of all, it was swift and methodical; she's as dispassionately cruel toward herself as she is toward others. It's a job to get done in time for dinner: mom's calling.

    Besides Huppert, the young actor who plays Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) is remarkable. Like his character, he appears ordinary, good but not great looking, too confident, boringly relaxed, but he surprises you by keeping up with Huppert every step of the way just as his character does. These two come together in ways I've not seen before on screen. The transgressive sex scenes are surprising from minute to minute and both characters are dynamic beyond all expectation. Both are conceived as contradictions. Erika is brilliant about music, insane about human relations. Walter is a normal guy, a hockey coach, a future engineer, but he plays piano recklessly and brilliantly and his musical thinking is mature. He is ready for the battleground that is Huppert's Erika and when they clash in horrible sexual warfare, both are changed. He pops back, but is drawn into her sadomasochistic games. She loses it and is going through a series of meltdowns, yet she remains visibly enough in control to be expected to play piano at a major recital when she has disabled her female student. Huppert is remarkable, but Magimel is completely authentic in all the most intense and ruthlessly intimate sex scenes: he knows exactly what he needs to do.

    `La Pianiste' in other words is actor-driven, so when it won the Grand Prize at Cannes it was inevitable that Huppert and Magimel would get the Best Actress and Best Actor awards. It's hard to conceive the movie without them. The Grand Prize also signals recognition of Haneke as a major European filmmaker. Is it a desire to transcend his Austrian culture and become more pan-European that has led him to make his last two movies in French, and set `Code Unknown,' also a controversial film, in Paris? Why specifically does everyone in `La Pianiste,' which takes place mainly at the Vienna Conservatory, speak French? To accommodate Huppert? To modulate the cold Teutonic tone of the Austrian novel the movie's based on? Or perhaps – my theory – to make the whole story more abstract – because it's not just about sadomasochistic craziness but about cloying family ties, frustration, and abusive mentors, especially piano teachers? Rumor has it that piano teachers are sometimes as cruel as this. They just don't have Huppert's chutzpah, froideur, and elegant sexiness. In a way this is a fantasy about what a really, really mean piano teacher might be like in her spare time if our worst nightmares about her were true. This story is, certainly, about our worst nightmares, our repressions, the things we've imagined that we don't want to talk about, the sickness in our relationship with our mother and with our lovers. To deal with desperation and human limits is not to step away completely from everyday experience but to examine it under a microscope. Haneke takes us to places we have been before in our minds and in our emotions.

    Walter (Magimel) is the voice of normality. He's a nice guy, a friendly, self confident, healthy, helpful athlete: he's a little like Wayne Gretsky. But though he laughs when he reads Erika's kinky, sick instructions for their sexual relations, then tells her she disgusts him and he will have no more to do with her, he's in love with her, so he winds up little by little starting to follow the instructions in spite of himself. Because of his admiration and love, he becomes another person. `La Pianiste' is about crossing the line, losing control in a world (like a conservatory of music) where control is the watchword. Walter laughs for us; he expresses our discomfort with Erika's insanity, and thus, as over-the-top as the movie becomes, we stay with it and disquietingly within it.

    This is a transgressive analysis of emotion that's true to general human experience. I've been emotionally strung out with a lover (who hasn't?) and all this craziness spoke to my own emotional memories. `La Pianiste' has disgusting things in it, and I'm no masochist – not even as a moviegoer – but this is a terrific movie, perhaps a great one.
  • If you want to know how messed up people can get - not why but mostly the end result - this is a film for you. Otherwise, stand clear, for this is just a portrait of a really, really sick person that will leave a hole in your soul. Yes, we see how controlling the piano teacher's mother can be and so get some inkling of the roots of her depravity, but we know nothing of the teacher's history. So it's not a study of how someone becomes sado-masochistic which might have made this a more interesting psychological study.

    How depraved can human beings get and do we really care? Movies with psychopaths or psychotics as main characters (unless they're really about those who respond to the madness) boil down to portraits of chaos and human depravity which is ubiquitous in our universe. Who needs 'art' to portray it? I'd rather watch a film that makes the audience think about something of value, even if it takes place on the wrong side of an ethical dilemma. La Pianiste isn't art nor entertainment but perverse voyeurism.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    After I saw "La Pianiste" several years ago, I said to myself that I would never see it again, so powerful and disturbing it was. Time went on but I could not get the movie and its main character, Erika Kahut out of my mind. The story of a respected Piano teacher in Vienna Conservatory, cool and collected on the surface, an expert in classical music, with the inner world so dark and disturbing with the demons of fear, self-loathing and self destruction strong enough to ruin her demanded more than one viewing. I read the book "The Piano Teacher" by Elfriede Jelinek, the controversial Nobel Prize winner in literature that the film is based on and after reading it I saw the film again. Second time, all pieces of puzzle came to the right places. Not very often an outstanding harrowing book is transferred to the screen with such brilliancy as "Le Pianiste". Three actors gave outstanding performances. Franz Schubert's Piano music, "soaked in the morbid humanity", is another bright star of the movie.

    I only have one problem with Haneke's vision. There is a scene in the film where Haneke made some changes to Erika's character comparing to the novel. In the book, the furthest she went to reveal herself to Walter, the young student in the conservatory who became attracted to her, was in a letter. As soon as he realized what he was dealing with and showed to her how much he was repulsed by that, she had stopped communicating with him. Erika of the book would never chase Walter to throw herself to him. She kept everything inside - she did not like to act, she was not a chaser - she loved to watch. The big scene during the hockey game was not necessary. It tried to make Erika sympathetic (and of course, Huppert was heartbreaking) but it took the mystery that surrounded her - Jelinek did not write that scene, it sounded and looked false in otherwise excellent film.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I do not fail to recognize Haneke's above-average film-making skills. For example, I appreciate his lingering on unremarkable-natural-day-lighted settings as a powerful way to force a strong sense of realism. However, regarding the content of this film, I am very sad to see that in the 21st century there is still an urge to pathologize domination-submission relations or feelings (and/or BDSM practices). The problem that the main character has with her mother is unbelievably topical as is the alienation and uncomprehension felt by Walter (I don't mean the frustration of a lover which is not loved back in the same way, which is understandable; I mean that he looks upon her as if she were crazy, or as if he was a monk, come on!). I mean D/s is not something new in the world and I think it is rather silly to treat the subject as if it were something "freakish" or pathological; it isn't. In general, films dealing with this subject are really lagging behind the times.

    So, for me, I feel that this film ends up being quite a programmatical film, worried with very outdated psicoanalitical theories (isn't it nearly embarrassing?), and that does not really relate with real-life lives and experiences of those engaged in D/s relationships (personal experience, forums, irc chatrooms even recent scholar studies will show this).
  • mattymatt4ever14 February 2003
    Warning: Spoilers
    First of all, those who are faint at heart should definitely avoid this film. Even those, like me, who are desensitized to most graphically violent and sexual acts in movies should beware. I'm not telling you to steer away from the film, but be aware that what you're about to see is some disturbing material. Definitely not a pleasing film to watch, but nothing is put on screen strictly for shock value. But I must admit, when I watched the film for a second time, I had to skip to the next chapter when the "razor blade scene" came up.

    The main character is one of the most unsympathetic sympathetic characters I can think of, but we start to better realize the humanity of her character later in the film's second act. In one scene, she stuffs broken glass in one of her student's jacket pocket after being dissatisfied with her apparently unsatisfactory performance and getting nervous when in front of a live audience. The student goes into her pocket and cries out with pain as she stares at her blood-stained hand. Next to the razor blade scene, that disturbed me most. The student's mother is not much more sympathetic than she. When she gets word that her daughter won't be able to play, she talks about it like she also got also her hand injured, being one of those spoiled mothers who tries to torture her daughter into becoming an overachiever.

    Though the film intrigued me and caught my interest for the most part, I felt more needed to be explained about Isabelle Huppert's character. When a woman is fascinated by sadomasochistic porno movies and engaging in that behavior herself, you want to understand the root of the problem. The movie establishes that she wants desperately to be loved. Then why the hateful attitude towards everyone? Why does she receive sexual pleasure from pain?

    The acting is terrific and I liked the glossy, stylized lighting. Altogether, it's not a film I'd recommend if you're in the mood to be entertained, but as I said it's very intriguing. And I'm sure if I watched it a few more times, I'd be able to spot certain subtleties that'll shed more light on aspects of the film I didn't realize initially.

    My score: 7 (out of 10)
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