on 12 March 2012
This film is a perfect example of French cinema at its best. One of France's greatest actresses - Isabelle Huppert - plays the part of Erika, a Viennese piano teacher, late thirties and sexually repressed, she lives an isolated, lonely life in a small apartment with her aged and volatile mother with whom she has a love-hate relationship. She has masochistic tendencies and pays clandestine visits to sex-shops to view hardcore pornography. She is aware of her own talent and skill as a teacher of the classical piano and judges others harshly. When a young male student approaches her she is impressed by his musical capabilities on the piano. He too is drawn to her. With her state of mind aroused and the young student's youthful naivety fully engaged they begin an affair.
This is not a film for the faint-hearted or lovers of `Mary Poppins plays piano' type of entertainment! It is at times very dark, and sexually explicit, though the latter amounts to no more that about ten minutes or less in total in a film of over two hours. But what there is, is strong and often violent. I did wonder about the strength of the sexual scenes, until I realised it had to be so, to fully explain the intense state of mind of Erika. The film is, after all, about Erika's mental condition and her relationship with the people in her life.
The classical piano music to be heard, although the film is not about this, is nevertheless essential and enjoyable, and most is heard during the early half of the film. My only small (very) criticism is I thought the sub-titling was a little on the large side - others may not agree! It does not in any case hinder the following of the screenplay.
There are a good number of reviews of this movie - some of which are very comprehensive, even learned. They are well worth reading. I won't attempt to compete with those. What I will say is `The Piano Teacher' is a disturbing, and above all a very compelling film to watch. The industry awards it collected are no surprise. If you like French cinema films you'll like this one!
The Piano Teacher is one of the most heartbreaking films you could see, in fact I found myself repeatedly pausing the DVD to steel myself for what was coming, having seen it in the cinema on its release. I do find it much greater now than I did then, partly because I had so wanted it to be a different sort of film, or at least turn into one. But this is a film that grinds all hope underfoot like a cigarette butt, until not a smoulder remains. It essentially turns on three points: Erika Kohut, distinguished professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatoire, her mother, and a young student who acts as a catalyst for all the repression and distortion she has been subject to from childhood. The mother is a monster of control and egotism, and has effectively controlled her daughter's life and denied her all possibility of happiness. Not that she is successful enough for her mother, who still pushes her to excel and perform in the hope she might be noticed and her soloist's career take off.
The film really shows how far a demonic parent can go in destroying their child. Erika is hard to like, but as you realise how she has been affected, and that this very appealing young man, Walter Klemmer, will be powerless to get beyond the blocks, you cannot help feeling devastated and oddly moved. The final sequence is one of the most violent I have ever seen, even though it is not THAT violent in real terms, certainly not in comparison with what we are used to seeing. It is also acutely painful to see how Walter, with his young man's bravado, is sucked down into the degradation, even though he does bring a note of comedy at times. The acting by all three leads is astonishing, and the direction by Michael Haneke has all his trademark clinical clarity and unrelenting gaze. There is also fantastic beauty in the music - Schubert and Brahms - that stands in such stark contrast to Erika's inner life, suggesting that the relation between the two is less simple than we might assume. It is a demanding film to watch, but utterly compelling and unforgettable, and it doesn't compromise in telling us the truth. There is no softening or suggestion that love will conquer all, just a raging, raw torrent of pain, a legacy of an upbringing the character cannot get beyond, rather in the same way as Estelle in Great Expectations, but made as sharp as broken glass.
In which Haneke plunges the knife into the social pretence of refinement, culture and manners to detail the underlying S&M undertones to the presumed haughtiness and bullying.
Brilliantly viewed as a psycho pathological masterclass the film deals with madness, relationships and a slow psychological destruction which simmers throughout the drop downwards.
Portrays the rampant bullying within this classical world as the composers are treated as rarified gods whose chimes bring forth new visions of light to the hearers but instead Haneke details the rampant lying, cheating and social autism of the whole debacle. The family that sacrifices their daughter to the bullying regime because she is not good looking enough, Teacher, Ms. Kohut tears into them with the power of a whip on their emotional chords. Brutal uncompromising she returns home to be bullied by her mother, who both cares and dominates in equal measure. Meanwhile the father is in an asylum and is only spoken about than to.
Underneath the veneer our haughty teachers seeks release in peeping booths where she sniffs on used tissue for the full effect of sensorama porn. Believing that relationships are based upon porn style sex she seeks a release with one of her students. When confronted with S&M he rebels before falling into his own version of the role and then the piano teacher is faced with an overwhelming conundrum.
A finely acted film which delivers a biting critique of etiquette with a must see clumsy sex scenes based on anything but sensory excitement.
on 25 January 2013
I love French films with a passion that is not quite sensible or healthy, and just to make things worse, "The Piano Teacher" comes along.
This is a film in the best traditions of modern French cinema, turning all your cosy assumptions upside down and making you pay full attention whilst sitting on the edge of your seat. Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, an austere and dowdy spinster who lives with her mother in Vienna and teaches piano at the conservatoire. The film starts with her going home to her domineering mother and getting browbeaten for buying a dress that her mother thinks isn't dowdy or economical enough. Ah, you think, poor soul; but then, this being a French film, your complacent assumptions are turned upside down. Over the next half-hour we see that Erika is, in her turn, domineering, cold and even sadistic, treating her students with an almost pathological cruelty which appears less and less to be in response to her repressive home-life but more a manifestation of some innate perversity that comes from her innermost being. In her spare time she indulges in a depraved manner, going to porn studios to watch hard-core films, and enhancing her experience by picking up and sniffing the semen-sodden tissues left by previous male clients. She nearly comes a cropper one night while creeping around a drive-in cinema carpark and dogging (peering in at couples having sex in their car); whilst taking her knickers down and urinating during one of these episodes (to enhance her excitement), she is spotted by an infuriated man from inside the car she is peering into and chased around the carpark until she manages to escape. Another time, she puts broken glass into the pockets of a young female student that she doesn't like and thinks shouldn't be at the conservatoire, thus ruining the girl's hands and destroying any hope she has of making a career as a pianist. And all the time you are thinking, is she really like this, or can it all be blamed on her mother?
Inevitably, she falls in love with a handsome young man, a student at the conservatoire; he falls for her, but is repelled by the sexual perversions she wants him to inflict upon her. The ending is a touch too ambiguous for my taste, but given the nature of the characters portrayed, any other more conclusive ending would have done violence to the sense and logic of the film.
The most astonishing thing about the film is not its shock value, but the performance of Huppert. She has the ability to convey every shade of inner emotion without altering her expression in the least; anger, jealousy, sorrow, hate and lust all radiate from her glacially immobile face without a hint of movement - I've never seen anything like it in any other film, or with any other actor. It's worth watching for that alone.
If you like unpredictable, off-kilter films about unusual subjects in unlikely settings, then this is for you.
on 26 March 2003
Make no mistake, this is not a film for the faint-hearted. It deserves it's '18' certificate. But it is nonetheless a superb film, an amazing depiction of loneliness, alienation and self-delusion. Even though I knew what was coming, it still shocked me and left me mentally gasping for breath. The most shocking thing of all, perhaps, is that the film is apparently much lighter in mood than the book it was based on!
Isabelle Huppert is superb as Erika Klohut, a woman alienated from life by her own fears and her elderly, utterly selfish mother. She is a brilliant pianist, but is so cold she could freeze a blast furnace. Huppert is amazing as she wanders through the film seeming as hard as nails, but underneath it all craving affection and something more. However, as she realises at the end, what she really craves is not what she thought. She is confused by her own sexuality and is way out of her depth in her relationship with Walter Klemmer (wonderfully realised by Benoit Magimel of 'Nids de Guepes' fame). She thinks she is in control, but it becomes very apparent to her that she isn't, and the end of the film is so sad it isn't true. Make sure you listen to Huppert's commentary on this.
This is a great film and one that will move you to the core. Klohut isn't likeable, and nor is Klemmer, but they are real people, and I think most of us certainly know someone like Klohut, although they may not be this extreme. This is great cinema, provocative yet terribly sad.
My only question is, what was she doing in the bath with that razor?!!!
Michael Haneke's 2001 film, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, is a powerful tale of sexual obsession and perversion, featuring at its core an astonishing performance by Isabelle Huppert as the outwardly prim and proper piano teacher, Professor Erika Kohut. This is, of course, subject matter that has been depicted (many times) before on screen and one that is notoriously difficult to convey without being simply too OTT or titillating, and whilst Haneke does not succeed entirely on these fronts, his film is still brilliantly done. In particular, the setting for The Piano Teacher, upper middle class Viennese society, with all its formal pretensions and love of fine things (here, predominantly, classical music) is perfect for this tale of obsessive love and (outward) depravity.
Whilst Haneke's film is certainly not particularly insular and has quite a large number of peripheral characters, it can essentially be regarded as a trio in acting terms. Erika, now in her 40s and still living with her overly protective and inquisitive mother (brilliantly played by veteran French actress Annie Girardot), comes across handsome, new piano student Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), and the pair, following Erika's initial rejection, reveal themselves to be mutually obsessed. Of course, what Walter does not realise initially is that underneath Erika's outwardly formal pretensions, lies a romantically repressed persona and a consequent obsession with sexual deviancy (pornography, voyeurism, self-mutilation), into which world she attempts to coerce her student. In what is a very challenging role, Magimel turns in an assured performance (I had only come across him once before - a small part in Mathieu Kassovitz's outstanding La Haine) - mixing deceptive innocence, lust, exuberance and wry humour very impressively.
However, it is Huppert's central turn that (obviously) steals the show (and for whose performance alone at least one of my stars can be attributed). She is simply brilliant, whether it be as the subservient daughter, the stern and cruel piano teacher, the repressed sexual being or the rejected, and devastated, lover. Huppert has, for me, had a very mixed career (not surprising, I guess given that she has made around 100 films) - outstanding in films (or performances) such as The Lacemaker, Violette Noziere, Loulou, Coup De Torchon, At First Sight and Amateur, but probably never better than here. Some of Haneke's lingering close-ups on Huppert's studied (and often averted) expressions are haunting and mesmerising. An Oscar nomination for this performance really would have been a true indication of the Academy shedding itself of its (longstanding) conservative shackles.
Throughout, Haneke includes trademark touches of brilliant dark humour, such as when Erika first strolls into a porn shop, before taking her seat in one of the personal viewing booths (over which Haneke wafts classical music), or when, following a bout of self-mutilation in the bathroom, Erika's mother shouts, 'Dinner's ready!'. For those with a classical music (particularly, small group) bent, there is also plenty to admire here (although the sexual deviancy might be too much of a distraction, I guess!).
For me, Haneke's film falls just short of masterwork status as a result of its final 20 minutes - the scene in Erika's apartment and Haneke's trademark enigmatic conclusion do not quite cut it for me (although I can't immediately think of a better alternative).
on 14 November 2002
Michael Haneke has adapted Elfriede Jelinek's novel to create this disturbing psychological portrait of piano teacher Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert). Erika's claustrophobic life is filled with strict teachings and moral hypocrisy. She is a voyeur and masochist beneath her rigid exterior. Her life becomes desperate upon meeting a new student Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). Their relationship becomes tumultuous when it becomes increasingly clear that she is incapable of nothing like a "normal" romance.
This tragedy is at many times shocking and is likely to make you squirm in discomfort over the deranged levels of Erika's mentality. While frequently repulsed, I felt an odd sympathy for her at times over the fragility of her being and her difficulty with expressing love. The cinematography of this film is bleak. The atmosphere seems glazed with an impersonality and stark indifference equal to that of Erika's spirit. The air is bizarrely punctuated with the beauty of the many musical recitals throughout the film. Director Haneke has been much criticised for this work (it has been dismissed as pretentious). Though not for the faint of heart or morally concerned, I found it strangely moving and engaging in the way it unsettles.
It's been said by a reviewer that this film excels in the area of pornographic material alone - sex plays a huge part in this film, but there aren't any graphic sex scenes in it apart from the ones our lead lady watches in a booth at a sex shop.
Isabelle Huppert plays the sexually (and socially) repressed piano teacher, Erika Kohut. Her bizarre relationship with her domineering mother seems to be at the heart of her cold exterior. Erika seems to display little emotion outside of her apartment.
It is as we see Erika correcting the mother of one of her students when she says "we have sacrificed everything" in order for the student to practice piano by telling her that it is the daughter who has sacrificed everything - not the mother, that we glimpse some of the inner pain Erika is hiding away as she identifies with the girl.
Erika ends up engaging in what appears to be an act of spite, cold hatred against the girl. But on reflection, this may have been Erika's way of setting the girl free from the kind of life she herself had.
As part of the sexual repression, Erika exhibits strange sexual behaviour. This is expressed through such acts as mutilating her own genitals with a razor blade whilst she watches in a mirror, and urinating whilst watching couples having sex in cars. She also has a strong sexual desire which we learn about later in the film after she succumbs to the infatuation from Walter Klemmer - a student of hers.
This film is ultimately about control, to her students Erika seems to be very controlling. Erika herself is controlled by her mother and she fantasises about being controlled by someone else.
Some scenes are difficult to watch; Erika mutilating herself, the mutilation of her student's hand, the final scene with Walter Klemmer.
Throughout this film we see a woman slowly break down. Isabelle Huppert does this so convincingly that you can't take your eyes from the screen. We see a woman lose her poise and dignity. She eventually gains ultimate control in the last few moments of the film.
Working chronologically through the Essential Michael Haneke 10 DVD boxed set, The Piano Teacher is the 7th film in that set. It's also about the only one I'd seen before on Film 4 and this time round, it's the first Haneke that I really got into, savoured - and even enjoyed!
Haneke only makes films that not only cause ripples, they're more like tidal waves and waver between being irritatingly provoking and genius and often those boundaries oscillate between very narrow margins.
For once, Haneke focuses on just one person, an incredibly honest, pained and often humiliating performance from Isabelle Huppert, who is the teacher in question. Completely turning the oft perceived notion that only males can be sexual predators, this immense - and intense - psychological case study is by turns disturbing, superb storytelling and very believable scenarios and behaviour patterns. Long gone, too are Haneke's frequent jarred sequences, this runs fluently and fluidly. The film is also superbly made, this is as far from the grungy, homemade feel of Benny's Video; this is high art, along with lashings of the sadistic and at times, cruel world of the sexually repressed.
At over two hours, this is probably Haneke's longest film, but is easily the most compulsive. You simply have to park one's feelings and emotions as it unfolds. Featuring also pornography (as a playing video) and some otherwise very adult orientated material, this could all easily get too much, however unsettling much of it is, I would dare say that any open-minded adult, from pretty well any background would find much in The Piano Teacher - the content is justified by the story and the character.
The ending, too, is surprisingly 'satisfying' (you'll see what I mean) for a Haneke, he is usually so open-ended that one often feels a little cheated.
I would say that this is Michael Haneke's best film, so far. It's not for everyone, but once immersed, you may find that it's one of the best films of its kind, ever made.
on 2 May 2002
Michael Haneke is a director of incredible power. Those who have seen his previous well known efforts (Benny's Video, and Funny Games) will have some idea what to expect from one of the few directors who tackles the subjects of violence in cinema seriously. Whilst the latter two examples focused on violence and its damaging effect on a society desensitised, here, with the Piano Teacher, Haneke explores themes and subjects that neither could possibly prepare you for.
The film is essentially an examination upon the notions of sexual perversity, oppression, and the constant battle for power between the sexes. To say more would only diminish the power of Haneke's storytelling which, as seen in his previous films, unfolds in a pseudo-documentary style of unflinching camera angles. There is no showboating from Haneke, he is not interested in flash cuts, or special effects. The camera is merely an observer, keeping the action (although incredibly brutal in parts) hidden from the audience. Everything shocking happens just out of view, or obstructed. The framing is exceptional. But for all its worth, praise must be given to its cast. Particularly Huppert who bares all in her performance which cries out for comfort and sympathy while also distancing herself from us with the extreme side of her perversions. It is performances like hers that deserve to be awarded and commended, brave unflinching performances in films which tackle uncomfortable topics. This is not a film for the light hearted. However, watched in the right atmosphere the intense emotional journey of "The Piano Teacher" will stick with you forever.