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.