Though debated as an art form, cinema can do more than just entertain as it can harness raw emotions to solicit reactions ranging from elation to fear. If one looks hard enough, cinematic avenues beyond the mainstream present themselves and the art that one seeks can quickly distort and ultimately disturb the viewer.
From personal experience, one key scene in Gaspar Noe’s ‘IRREVERSIBLE’ (2002) caused me to exit the theatre as I dry wretched; Srđan Spasojević’s ‘A SERBIAN FILM’ (2010) prompted severe insomnia for over two days; Pascal Laugier’s ‘MARTYRS’ (2008) rendered me incapable of eating for a day, whilst the less said about Pier Pasolini’s ‘SALO’ aka ‘120 DAYS OF SODOM’ (1975) or Takashi Miike’s ‘AUDITION’ (1999), the better. Pragmatists will critique such reactions asserting the fictionalized stories as ‘It’s only a movie’ but these are often the same people who may blatantly avoid such alternative genres, rendering their criticisms as moot. These style of films do not exclusively exist within a vacuum, however their presence is undeniable and thus should be treated as more than merely a curio.
The stark question will always be why venture into this style of modern cinema in the first place? Some genuinely seek a shocking experience, yet for the most part (in my opinion) it is all about witnessing the risk a film maker has decided to take, with the pay-off being the audience appreciation and creating an unforgettable experience.
Although touted as a romance or psychological drama, Michael Haneke’s 2001 film THE PIANO TEACHER (TPT) nestles nicely into the aforementioned category of disturbing films – and though it flirts with eroticism, there are enough terrifying elements to make this a gothic horror film. Based on a 1983 novel by Austrian playwright and novelist, Elfriede Jelinek; TPT is a descent into the depths of depravity with the hellish concepts of sado-masochism juxtaposed against the classy and sterile setting of a music conservatory. What transpires is a slow burn, but one that Haneke initiates so masterfully it really gets under the skin.
Isabelle Hupert plays Erika Kohut, a middle aged piano professor teaching at the Vienna music conservatory. She is seemingly strict and demanding, with such being attributed to her own sense of perfection and high skill. However, despite her self-assured manner, Erika still shares an apartment with her controlling elderly mother as her father had previously been committed to an asylum years prior. Though professionally brilliant, her personal life is besieged by an unnatural level of control and Erika is a sexually repressed and isolated lady that is fascinated by everything from sadomasochistic fetishes to self-mutilation. Whilst by day she commands respect and fear from her conservatory students, by night she is tormented by parental restraint – even having her own finances micromanaged by her unnamed mother (Annie Girardot).
Suddenly, Erika fixates her attention on a young engineer and new talented musician in Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) with whom she meets at a recital. Walter initially expressed his admiration for Erika’s talent, however her aloofness creates a social barrier that prevents him from getting close to her, further enforcing their their Teacher-Student dynamic.
Deeming her uninterested, the young and handsome Walter flirts with another student Anna (Anna Sigalevitch), which causes the jealous Erika to covertly exact a vicious act and damage Anna’s piano playing hands. Though Walter tries his best to pursue Erika, she rebukes his advances with a nasty level of humiliation, playing mind games as she pretends to satisfy his urges before quickly becoming distant. Walter is clearly infatuated with Erika and pursues her with enthusiasm, only to sharply alter his perspective when she presents him a document that details her deepest and darkest desires. Justifiably repulsed by Erika’s requests, Walter seemingly exits the dynamic only to return in a brutal fashion that leaves the piano teacher distraught and in an almost catatonic state.
Without revealing too much, Haneke snares the viewer into a pit of despair, where idealized notions of love are instead challenged and replaced by primal human desire. Magimel’s Walter Klemmer is everything that Erika lusts after, as he is good looking, talented and seemingly kind. However, Walter’s outward appearance hides a darker and malicious persona that further corrupts Erika’s already twisted mind. There is a shifting power dynamic that quickly alters but only serves to benefit one party and leaves the other in a damaged state beyond any sense of repair.
Huppert is excellent as the repressed Erika, whose overwhelming coldness to those around her inhibits her own ability to feel the warmth of love that she so desperately seeks. When the opportunity presents itself, she is unable to articulate any expression of real humanity with her own self destructive desires resulting in the worst possible outcome. Whether willing or unwitting, one could easily opine that Erika quickly becomes the prey given her lack of self-awareness or understanding of social norms. With that, even her cold exterior serves as poor protection for the predatory manner of those she desires most. Ultimately what she seeks from Walter, results not in catharsis nor liberation but the realization that her own growth has been stagnated by the way she has treated others. This perhaps a by-product of her own strange upbringing, which is never explored in full, but certainly implied.
Though this movie was released over 20 years ago, one could assert that it is largely polemic as much as polarizing. Although it may have been dogged by controversy in the year of release, viewing it now still leaves a potent taste in one’s mouth; akin to that of a hangover permeated by taste of Chartreuse or any strong alcoholic beverage still lingering in one’s system. There is no miracle cure, but once sobriety (or rather normality) is achieved, we venture back into the same decadence that caused the pain in the first place. Such is the masochistic excellence of THE PIANO TEACHER, hence at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, this movie won the Grand Prix with the two leads (Huppert and Magimel) winning Best Actress and Actor, respectively
Yet with a retrospective view, one cannot but praise Haneke for what is essentially an antithetical piece that thumbed its nose to the formulaic structure of mainstream cinema. And this is an assertion that can still be applied today, two decades after the movie was released. That is the sheer talent of Michael Haneke. As with his original ‘FUNNY GAMES’ (1997) and the more recent ‘HAPPY END’ (2017), Haneke freely studies the darker side of humanity, with equal parts creativity and shock value.
Throughout the course of the film, the audience is (somewhat unsurprisingly) treated to an incredible soundtrack, punctuated with key classical notes that perhaps lull you into a false sense of security. And as masterfully as this is established, the final act is devoid of any such audible purity as we witness a horrific moment of dehumanization.
When you peel back the veneer of perceived perfection, there is sometimes a hellish scenario of depravity, a theme that is evident in Haneke’s film. It is reminiscent of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986), where the pristine quality of suburbia hides what is essentially imperfect, corrupted and contaminated. TPT is very difficult to get through, but if one can stomach the subject matter then it becomes easy to appreciate the absolute brilliance of this Austrian Director. Quite frankly, what Haneke has managed to paint is an elegant nightmare, and one that will continue to fester in your consciousness days after you have experienced it.
Paradoxically, this is as much a careful warning as it is a glowing endorsement.
More about The Piano Teacher at Criterion.