The cover of Elfriede Jelinek's novel The Piano Teacher hints at an intimate world of softcore pleasures: a naked woman sits at a piano in high heels, a small clef sign tattooed on her backside. But the photograph is a tease, a con, for the world inside the book is cold and hard, while its pleasures are strictly intellectual. Published in 1983, the Austrian author's novel would seem impossible to film given its claustrophobic prose and the uncompromising quality of its vision, an unholy match of Baudelairean spleen and the sort of radical feminism not meant for the faint of heart. In all likelihood, it was the take-no-prisoners quality of Jelinek's novel that first caught the attention of Michael Haneke, a German-born filmmaker whose own commitment to socking it to the audience under the guise of intellectual provocation has played out in such thuggish fare as Funny Games and Benny's Video. Neither of these films prepares you for Haneke's The Piano Teacher, at once an emotional thriller and a domestic horror movie—a woman's picture with a vengeance, in which the bloodletting is kept to a minimum, and ends up all the more powerful and profound for it. Here, the smallest razor slice, even when hidden from view, can make you shiver—or quite literally turn your stomach, as it did mine the two times I've seen the film. Here, screen violence isn't a matter of punishing characters in order to punish or thrill the audience, but rather a desperate bid for emancipation.
On its simplest level, The Piano Teacher is a story of sexual repression. Cheerless and apparently friendless, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) divides most of her time between students she abhors and her equally hated mother (Annie Girardot), a shrew neither Jelinek nor Haneke bothers to name. Dressed in various ghastly floral-print housecoats, "Mother" is all mothers at their most wretched—consuming, suffocating, eternally enraged at the child who's abandoned her womb. Indeed, there are flowers everywhere in Erika and Mother's apartment, a claustrophobic warren in which blooms are scattered across the upholstery, papered walls and dreary rugs like cemetery wreaths. Entombed in their apartment, Erika and Mother tear at each other piece by piece, feeding themselves on mutual need and loathing. (Alongside Ibsen's Nora and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, these two take their place in a tradition of fictional women whose interior lives play out along the contours of their domestic spaces.) Banished to an insane asylum, the Kohut father has been effectively replaced by the daughter, who actually sleeps next to her mother, shoulder to shoulder. Erika has another source of nourishment, however, which she taps furtively yet, startlingly, without shame: in porno arcades, she shuts herself up in private booths to watch hardcore sucking and fucking, a display she enjoys while breathing into the crumpled paper towels left behind by the male clientele.
Few actresses would consent to make huffing old semen such ladylike, delicate business, but Huppert is a rare and dazzling talent, a fearless actress of seemingly limitless range. It takes guts to play it this cold, to refuse the audience's charity. Jelinek writes of Erika, "This woman has not a spark of submission," and to Huppert's credit, there isn't a hint of submission or compromise in her performance. Even so, the Erika of the novel proves far less sympathetic than her screen counterpart, in part because of the humanity ingrained in Huppert's face, no matter how impassive her expression or sadistic her behavior. (She's unspeakably cruel to her students, but worse to herself.) For Erika, emotion is the enemy, a betrayer lying in wait. Her life has been devoted to old masters—Schubert, Mother, Vienna itself—a sacrifice that seems to have robbed her of empathy, leaving no room for anyone else. She likes to watch, but not to touch or be touched; she neither knows nor cares to know kindness, tenderness. She sniffs the human stain even as she scrubs at it—furiously. How, then, could she prepare for Walter Klemmer (Benot Magimel), a devastatingly beautiful young man, a lover of Schubert and women both, who decides that he's in love with Erika—or, perhaps, that she is simply ripe for the plucking. As it turns out, Erika has been waiting for him all her life.
What ensues is difficult to watch and impossible not to. The pair embark on an assignation—love affair is too generous and gentle a phrase—that takes them from one thwarted coupling to the next. It's all pretty horrible and embarrassing, and on occasion strangely funny, reaching its apotheosis in a letter Erika writes Walter in which she details her fantasies, what she wants him to do with her—or rather, to her. He is appalled. Her requests are outr, outlandish, involving ropes, chains, wadded-up stockings, a rubber mask and more. But where Walter sees pathology ("You're sick!"), Haneke—and, especially, Jelinek—instead sees a woman asserting herself and her desires, staking a claim: it is, after all, the masochist who dictates just how tight the rope is to be tied. If Jelinek articulates the sadomasochist compact more successfully than Haneke, it's not only because she has an even more detached attitude toward its accouterments and possible applications, but also because she has a keener grasp of male-female relationships in all their contradictions. She's also a better feminist. Her Erika is predator and prey both; Haneke's is more opaque psychologically, as well as a little too moist. In the novel, everything is as explicitly spelled out as Erika's list of desires, which is pointedly interrupted by one of Jelinek's funniest and truest observations about men, women and the distance between them: "Reading the letter, Klemmer infers that this woman wants to be devoured by him. Thanks but no thanks; Klemmer isn't very hungry."
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 pater 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.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.