Holy moly, this was a cracker of a film. Not to be watched by anyone who wants an easy ride – take this as a warning. Directed by Michael Haneke, who makes challenging films like The White Ribbon and Caché, The Piano Teacher also has powerhouse performances, themes that make you decidedly uncomfortable and no neat resolution. With all of the Haneke films I have seen so far, as the end credits roll there is a moment of incredulity and exasperation but then the characters and subtext worm their way into your brain and refuse to leave.
Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a 40-something piano teacher, talented, strict and colourless. She lives with her mother, who dominates her, and they are mutually dependent on each other in a way that is suffocating and damaging. Erika is not all she seems, she visits sex shops to watch porn and spies on people having sex, lying to her mother about where she has been. A student sees her perform at a recital, becoming enamoured of her and pursuing her with all the eagerness of youth. For Erika it is a long-awaited chance to reveal her deepest desires.
Huppert is magnificent in this role. She often says little but her facial expression, body language, subtle movements and gestures tell us what is boiling beneath the surface. We are told little of Erika’s past but we suspect that an absent, mentally unstable father has played a part. We see that Erika is like one of her students, Anna – plain, talented but perhaps not quite enough to be great and with a mother willing to make her sacrifice everything for music. How Erika ‘helps’ Anna is at first shocking but becomes understandable as we see the life Erika endures.
I read a review of this film that said that the story, and the book on which it is based by Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek, is about Austria. Erika’s mother is Austria – authoritarian, fascist, repressing, setting standards and requirements that are impossible to achieve. Erika’s mental breakdown, her belief that love can only be controlling or submissive, her desperation to feel anything, even humiliation and pain, are the logical consequences of such ideals. It is a bleak film in this respect, although perhaps there is some faint hope for Erika at the end. Perhaps, but don’t count on it.
Bechdel test – pass