Let's say you're a director who wants to make a strong statement about the double standard of acceptable sexual behavior for women and men. You also want to expose the legacy of a high musical culture built on extraordinary sacrifice, rigid discipline and consequent repression -- even madness.
Here's a suggestion: Don't make your heroine a victimized, pathological, sadomasochistic pianist, as Austrian director Michael Haneke does in his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek's novel "The Piano Teacher." Such creatures are hardly touchstones of female sexual empowerment.
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) teaches at a prestigious Viennese conservatory and lives in an unhealthy relationship with her controlling mother (Annie Giradot). In her 40s and a talented failure in her mama's eyes, Erika supports the two of them via a predictable schedule of master classes, recitals and concerts. She demands perfection from her students, but the self-loathing, mousy and drawn Erika surreptitiously enjoys hard-core porn and other sexual perversions. Enter Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), a handsome and seemingly self-assured young man who pursues her until he becomes her student and lover.
As the story proceeds, Erika's pathologies become more pronounced. In a fit of jealousy, she puts broken glass in a student's coat pocket, assuring injury. When Walter follows her into a bathroom, Erika controls their first sexual encounter with the same mastery she exhibits in her teaching and piano playing. Shortly thereafter, she admits to him her innermost desires for sexual humiliation and opens up her box of S&M gear.
One mealtime, Erika's mother notices blood trickling down her daughter's leg and assumes she is having her period. (We in the audience, however, know that Erika practices genital mutilation.) "It's not very appetizing," the mother snipes. Sadly, the comment applies to the movie, too. Unnerving and painful to watch, it definitely provokes discussion of sexual politics, yet also leaves you wanting to escape the theater for some air.
Not unexpectedly, there's an atmosphere of hothouse cultural tradition, and lots of classical music in the performance and lesson sequences. When such music appears, it is thematically significant, yet, strangely, little of it is heard as counterpoint to the action.
Cinematographer Christian Berger and co-editors Monika Willi and Nadine Muse ensure that the movie's composition and continuity fit the subject matter. Hands fly across keyboards in detailed fingering patterns. The sexual acts are at once intimate and listless, exposing more desperation and humiliation than body parts. What violence the story holds transpires so quickly that it's barely seen.
Both Huppert and Magimel won Best Actor awards at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Huppert's performance is mesmerizing, capturing both the vulnerability and coldness Erika exhibits in her roles as victim and perpetrator. Magimel's Walter is believable in his earnestness, frustration and disgust, and Giradot's passive aggression rings true.
But director Haneke keeps us at arm's length. Guided more by intellect than heart, his story flattens instead of sharpens. And the ending is confusing, viewable as either a reassertion of the male dominance at the base of a conservative ideology, or an endorsement of violence as an avenue of female rebellion.
Watching "The Piano Teacher" brings to mind the old joke that a masochist implores to be beaten and a sadist refuses to do it. Haneke and his audience might just share a similar relationship.