I’m not exactly sure how to describe my relationship with Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher because I remember viewing it after I had only been familiar with the title after seeing three other films from his own body of work and having loved each of them: I was unsure what to be prepared for. At first I was only left with a fairly perplexed reaction akin to my first experience watching Caché. Revisits didn’t go the same way they did Caché for at certain points I went to rewatch The Piano Teacher I was almost adoring it only to find myself at another point retracting a bit. Soon only the very best qualities of Haneke’s work had stood out and I was even more enamored by Isabelle Huppert’s leading performance: arguably the finest of her own kind and one of the century’s very best. But this dementedness was something I always knew of a Michael Haneke film and it came out just the way I always would have wanted with The Piano Teacher.
Isabelle Huppert stars as the sexually repressed Erika Kohut, a woman who still lives with her domineering mother. She’s a piano professor at a music conservatory in Vienna, but in her private life she lives inside of a world that is filled with paraphilia, not limited to and including extreme fetishes such as self-mutilation. Eventually she begins pursuing a younger pupil who carries a romantic fascination towards her. Haneke’s films aren’t always going to prove themselves the most welcoming of experiences but with The Piano Teacher one of his most fascinating works has come about with a demented portrait of human desire. I was never ready for something that would have turned nearly half as unpleasant as this on my first watch but at the same time I always kept my eyes on what was going on rather than turn away at uncomfortable sights at the time.
There’s a usefulness to the unpleasant nature of The Piano Teacher which, if anything – only makes Haneke’s film even more powerful. Huppert’s character if anything is one who is reduced to where she is as a result of how her environment has been treating her. She is a continually repressed woman who is searching for a way to call for help, even from the most demented methods. Maybe in some sense it was Michael Haneke’s intention, there’s a clear anger that is being expressed from The Piano Teacher – anger regarding what society does to an innocent figure like it did Erika. Erika is shown to us as a cruel figure who carries little to no emotion regarding the world she lives within, but there’s something in hiding she presents that calls for empathy. Soon even what appeared in front of our own eyes as repulsive would be painful, but in a sense it brings us closer to Erika’s psyche.
Haneke’s films carry an unflinching quality to their portrait of the environments to which their characters inhabit, but the way he works around the atmosphere he forms is another wonder in itself especially coming down to how they play a role in exploring the psychology of his subjects. In The Piano Teacher, the whole world is a suffocating one, but in the best sense. For the fact that everything feels so closed in only captures the state of mind that our own protagonist, Erika, has been driven to as a result of what she is feeling. Haneke doesn’t cut away from the most explicit imagery or the most repulsive action, even going as far as including actual pornography for one sequence – but the next shot we see is one of Erika’s face and it works to create a reflection of disgust. Disgust at how the world around her has brought her to this form of lust and desire and it damaged her internally. Haneke still keeps everything quiet and it’s within his subtlety where The Piano Teacher finds its greatest assets.
To speak of Isabelle Huppert, however, would be another challenge. Huppert’s performance, as a result of Haneke’s direction, displays simple fragility even from small facial expressions. The nature to her character ends up creating a fantastic contrast that only makes The Piano Teacher all the more compelling: and in turn she delivers what truly is one of the finest performances of the 21st century. In hindsight the content would be erotic, but something greater comes to the table in regards to how Huppert’s performance feels reflective of a broken construct falling upon itself. Her actions are deplorable and representative of the worst in mankind, but there’s something about how she fits into this role that only draws one closer to her psychology, and it’s what allows The Piano Teacher to present something of greater effect in itself. Haneke’s study of her psyche blends her best and worst qualities in order to create something more fascinating altogether and Isabelle Huppert’s performance only feels evocative only of the best on all ground.
It’s hard enough trying to describe the sort of experience that watching The Piano Teacher for the first time can lay upon oneself because it’s immensely difficult to like its leads on the count of their actions but at the same time it still keeps you drawn in. But that’s Michael Haneke’s greatest achievement on the inside, he displays the results of what an oppressive world can do to the most fragile of human beings as shown through the destructive nature of Huppert’s character. It was hard enough trying to describe my relationship with The Piano Teacher before now but I feel safe in saying that it truly is one of Haneke’s own very finest films. Maybe it might not be my favourite at the moment but if something were to have stood out so perfectly about the experience, it would be in how overall it just calls for a certain feeling of empathy – then he mixes a feeling of disgust because of what everything around these people have been driving them to. I’ve never felt this sort of sympathy for a character I abhorred but Haneke managed to do it.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MK2.
Directed by Michael Haneke
Screenplay by Michael Haneke, from the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
Produced by Veit Heiduschka
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Anna Girardot
Release Year: 2001
Running Time: 131 minutes