An unexpected critical (Grand Prix at Cannes) and commercial (three months in London's West End) success on its release in 2001, The Piano Teacher
is a provocative, but ultimately frustrating, film. The intensifying relationship between Erika Kohut, a Viennese piano teacher whose musical focus is gradually undone by sexual repression, and Walter Klemmer, her uninhibited but unsuspecting student and admirer, lacks an underlying motivation, either physical or emotional, to sustain the tortuous encounters of the film's later stages.
Director Michael Haneke powerfully evokes the claustrophobic décor of the flat that Kohut shares with her dictatorial yet ineffectual mother, with whom her relationship progresses from the pitiful to the farcical. And farce of the blackest kind is what the film descends to, as Kohut and Klemmer play out a vicious game of sado-masochistic control with an intriguing but indecisive conclusion.
Isabelle Huppert is magnificently assured as Kohut, but Benoît Magimel often seems confused as Klemmer, while Annie Girardot resorts to a caricature of the mother. Fans of classical piano will enjoy the masterclass and rehearsal sequences during the first hour, though music is then relegated to a minor role--its deeper relevance to the film being ultimately difficult to define. English subtitles are provided, and the monochrome shades in which the scenes abound come through with suitably wan intensity. Yet it's hard not to feel that a more profound inquiry into the darker side of sexual desire has been lost along the way. --Richard Whitehouse
The Piano Teacher is a powerful and controversial drama from award-winning Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Code Unknown). Isabelle Huppert gives a performance of astounding emotional intensity as Erika Kohut, a repressed woman in her late thirties who teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory and lives with her tyrannical mother (Annie Girardot), with whom she has a volatile love-hate relationship. But when one of Erika's students, the handsome and assured Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), attempts to seduce her, the barriers that she has carefully erected around her claustrophobic world are shattered, unleashing a previously inhibited extreme and uncontrollable desire.