Directed by Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot, Anna Sigalevitch, Susanne Lothar and Udo Samel.
Based on the controversial novel by Austrian author Elfriede Jalinek, Michael Haneke's 'The Piano Teacher' is one of those movies that you will remember long after the credits roll. Booed and applauded in equal measure at Cannes this year, Haneke's film of sexual repression, sadism and cruelty actually went on to win three awards at the festival. But although it is indisputable that this film is unforgettable, is it so for the right reasons?
Erika Kohut (Huppert) is the eponymous piano teacher. In her late thirties, Erika is a failed concert pianist who now makes her living by tutoring aspiring pianists in the exclusive Vienna Conservatory. Her teaching methods are actually little more than bullying techniques, her wrath and frustration at her own failure and twisted existence extracted on a series of nervous, hopeful youngsters with fragile talents.
Erika lives with her mother and her father is dying in a mental institution. There are many words that one could use to describe this mother/daughter relationship. 'Healthy' is not one of them, neither is 'normal'. In the film's first scene, the mother chastises her daughter for coming home late, and hysterically demands to know what she was doing and where she was doing it. A screaming battle ensues and Erika eventually strikes out. Ten minutes in and you just know you're in for a rough ride. The mistake most will make is to underestimate just exactly how rough.
We know at this early stage that living with a despotic mother must mean that Erika is a damaged puppy. In truth, she is a monstrous deviant. Her isolation, loneliness and emotional detachment are understandable, but the depraved depths to which Erika stoops in the course of 'The Piano Teacher' will put a strain on the most hardened of minds, not to mention stomachs. As a release from her deeply repressed emotional existence, Erika spends her time frequenting porn booths, where she sniffs the discarded tissues while gazing inscrutably at the screen. She also spies on couples having sex in a local drive-in. It gets worse. In one of the film's most excruciating scenes, she calmly takes a razor blade to her genitalia while her mother prepares dinner in the next room. Oh dear.
Into this vortex of voyeurism, masochism, and emotional sterility steps precocious young pianist Walter Klemmer (Magimel). Intelligent, handsome and cockily charming, Walter becomes besotted with Erika, and for one brief moment it seems he might be her salvation. But the moment passes, and when Walter is introduced to Erika's inner world of sadism and degradation, the chance of any semblance of light penetrating the intolerable depression evaporates. The single biggest highlight of 'The Piano Teacher' is undoubtedly the incredible performance of Isabelle Huppert in the title role. The demands of playing such an aberrant character must have been enormous, but Huppert throws herself headlong into the warped world of Erika Kohut, a truly remarkable feat.
It's obvious that words like 'challenging', 'provocative' and 'brave' will be bandied around when this film comes up for serious discussion. It may well be all of those things, but it is also deeply disturbing. If genital mutilation, rape, incest and twisted acts of sexual gratification are your thing, then this is the film for you. Any takers?