The Piano Teacher (2001)
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
With the new millennium came changes to Michael Haneke’s focus & themes. In his earlier works (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, Funny Games), the director was concerned with critiquing the Austrian middle class and exploring a meta-commentary on our relationship to violence as depicted in the media. His first and only theatrical adaptation of a novel would be The Piano Teacher. The book was penned by Elfriede Jelinek, whose work is considered to be very angry and challenging in its stream of conscious-like prose. Nevertheless, Haneke manages to adapt her book by delivering it with his signature cold neutrality, and it certainly works to both tell the story of a very emotionally troubled woman while also showing sensitivity to explicit violence. Haneke does not want to hide violence from us; instead, he’s interested in communicating it in unexpected and powerful ways.
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a piano professor working at a conservatory in Vienna. She’s in her late 30s and shares an apartment with her domineering mother, who monitors all of Erika’s comings and goings. Erika is exceptionally sexually & emotionally repressed, and her loneliness leads her to seek dubious sexual thrills. After her lessons at the conservatory, she’ll visit a local adult bookstore, partaking of the video booths and sniffing the semen-stained tissues left in the wastebasket. At home, Erika hides from her mother in the bathroom and wounds her genitals with a razor blade. At a recital she attends with her mother, Erika meets Walter (Benoit Magimel), a young engineer who plays piano and appreciates the same composers as she.
Walter manages to get onto Erika’s roster of pupils, and there is an evident sexual tension between the two. Erika resists while Walter attempts to wear her down. Erika’s emotions become more volatile, and she becomes jealous of other women Walter flirts with to the point she brutally injures one without any person the wiser. Eventually, Erika is forced to reveal the extensive fetishes she has accumulated over her life and braces for Walter’s reaction. The fallout from this leads her down an even greater destructive path as this woman comes to terms with the lack of control over her own life.
Haneke shifts his focus to the psychological interior of his main character, a marked difference from those earlier films where characters existed to make sociological points. This is helped by the remarkable acting of Huppert, one of the contemporary gems of French cinema. Her performance is a tightrope, playing a woman who is restrained to the point of becoming neurotic but also having to express these tamped-down emotions in some way that the audience can register them. This is done through her eyes, darting back and forth as she becomes aroused. There are moments where the slightest of smirks crosses her lips, Haneke’s camera lingering to detect the change.
Haneke has expressed that The Piano Teacher is a film about the family being the root of conflict in the world. He explains this as the only world he can claim to know in-depth is the middle-class bourgeois family unit. The family exists as a microcosm of political-economic warfare with the same murderous irrationality seen on the battlefield in interactions between parents and children, siblings, and spouses. He does this by opening the film with an intense clash between Erika and her mother. Erika arrives home later than expected and is immediately questioned; her mother tries to steal her daughter’s purse to dig through it. At this point in the film, we don’t know that Erika keeps her razor blade wrapped in a napkin inside, but that is why she escalates the violence with her mother. She grasps a clump of the old woman’s hair and jerks her head back. Haneke cuts away to an indeterminate time later when the two have settled down. It’s clear this conflict is ongoing and will never be resolved.
The character of Walter is presented first as a challenge to Erika’s cold exterior. Haneke makes him difficult to pin down as he seems full of roguish charm in his introduction. He ends up being a catalytic figure, serving to propel the more prominent themes of the story forward but not really having a complete arc of his own. The sex he desires with Erika is born out of her dark compulsions and his base cravings. After she harms someone she sees as attracting his affection, she has to make her way to the bathroom. Throughout the picture, her sexual desires lead her to an urge to urinate, possibly hinting at some trauma further back in her past. It’s briefly mentioned that her father is locked away in a mental health facility, and he is not a regular part of the family’s life. Walter follows Erika into the bathroom, where he attempts to get her to engage in typical sexual acts, mainly performing oral sex on him. Erika surprises him by pushing the balance of power and setting particular boundaries (he cannot kiss her, he cannot speak, he cannot move), or she will stop, and this tryst will end.
Walter experiences a growing frustration as Erika continually usurps the expected power dynamics of a middle-class affair. He comes to her apartment in a fury of passion near the end of the picture, and Erika lays out a box of fetishistic objects for him to pursue. Walter pushes her to accept what is conventional and merely plays at indulging her personal desires. She continually tries to communicate with him that she doesn’t possess the emotions he is looking for and that their relationship will only be one of transaction. Erika can’t be satisfied on his terms, only the ones she has spent years shaping her psyche around.
Erika wants control over her life so severely that her sexual fetishes have organically become a means to find that power. She wants to be dominated, humiliated, and abused but all on her particular terms, and she ultimately can switch it on & off. Walter’s response is to make a feeble effort to indulge her, resulting in a sudden attack in her home, leading to violent rape. He ends up disgusted by himself and, more so, Erika, whom he begins to degrade for having what are twisted desires in his mind. However, the power he thinks he has is still in her hands, and she ends up aroused beyond control after he leaves. Walter admonishes her and pulls away, which sends the poor woman into a mental spiral of guilt and arousal.
These intense sexual kinks serve as Erika’s only means of escape from her controlled life. Her mother has laid out her entire career as a pianist and teacher, even reminding Erika of the composers she likes best. The problem with these self-destructive compulsions is that they need to be more significant as time goes on. Erika will never find the release she desires from her dominated life, and so there’s only one way this story can go in the end. Haneke speaks to the growing sexual dissatisfaction felt by people in the modern world. Centuries of repression and an inability of the contemporary world to provide reasonable means of psychological health leads to people living in quiet desperation. We are not as extreme as Erika gets, but the lengths she is willing to go underline the severe hell of so many people’s interior lives. Some people have found acceptance and love in traditionally marginalized communities by becoming protective of each other. Yet most people from Haneke’s class strata live uncomfortably in their own skin, unable to express desire and find satisfaction as they cannot articulate what they want.