Magimel plays Klemmer's attraction-repulsion note-perfect, and if the film were as good as its two leads—and as tough as the book—it would be brilliant; as it is, it's only spectacular, a brave and troubling if imperfect work of art, immaculately filmed, precisely directed, the sort you carry in your head for weeks, whether you want to or not. This is a film that, with a single terrifying, unforgettable close-up of Huppert's face twisted in the scream of a defeated Medusa, distills a universe of female desire, rage and impotence. Since its controversial premiere at Cannes last May, The Piano Teacher has attracted much attention—and opprobrium—principally on account of Erika's sexual kinks. Although this is unsurprising, it's also tiresome and adolescent. It's easier, too, because taking the film seriously, on its own difficult terms, also means taking seriously the everyday terror inherent in the struggle to find love and a sense of peace amid abject alienation; and taking seriously too that not all endings are happy. In recent years, Haneke himself has emerged from an aesthetic adolescence where he was too long in thrall to the mandate of épater le bourgeois. Like most art-house filmmakers who fill the screen with extreme gore and sadism, and the cultists who lap this stuff up, the director has tried to obscure his love for carnage with bankrupt rationalizations—it's the audience that's guilty and so forth—rather than just admitting it turns him on. It seems unlikely that Haneke will ever mine the depths of compassion, but with The Piano Teacher and his last feature, Code Unknown, an essayistic exploration of tribal violence from Paris to Bosnia, he has begun to leave the refuge of solipsism and self-justification to engage with the world and its living, breathing, all-too-human inhabitants. It's as if he's finally realized that while life is pitiless, we don't have to be.
The Piano Teacher was written and directed by Michael Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek; produced by Veit Heiduschka, Marin Kamitz and Alain Sarde; and stars Isabelle Huppert. Now playing in select LA Theaters.