The Piano Teacher March 27, 2017
the actress has regularly portrayed morally slippery women whose pursuits and whose desires have oftentimes made the film in which they’re the center distinctly unsettling.
Subtlety is her greatest friend — she's most fascinating when she’s staring into nothing blankly, rapt by her thoughts, than when she’s delivering dialogue with passion. Huppert can strive for the conventional and still seem complex, but she's most powerful when the woman she’s playing isn’t someone we can immediately figure out. In her best films, like last year’s Elle and like 2001’s The Piano Teacher, we never figure her character out. Instead, we sweatily spend the entirety of a film’s length attempting to decipher the person in front of us. The avail is little but the capacity to compel is meaty. Huppert is essentially a 1,000-piece puzzle – we have the drive to decode and to piece together what’s going on inside one of her characters’ heads, but the motivation is rocky and the results may vary.
Pretending Elle doesn’t exist for a handful of ticks (consider that the sum of its parts are dedicated to one woman’s atypical quest not to be a victim after being raped), The Piano Teacher is her most challenging film, a deeply disconcerting study of a 40-ish musician’s sexual repression and its connections to her fixation on masochism, voyeurism, and self-harm. By its finale are we no closer to understanding the eponymous protagonist’s thought processes. But our yearning to dig deep under her skin is enough to keep us enthralled, even if that enthrallment is abstract rather than tightly focused.
Written and directed by Michael Haneke, The Piano Teacher revolves around the life of Erika Kohut, a middle-aged piano teacher under the employ of a prestigious, Vienna-based conservatory. Though a masterful artist in her own right – she can especially interpret the pieces of Schumann and Schubert vividly – her personal life is severely stalled in comparison to her enviable professional success. She’s never married (hardly dated, in fact), still lives with her domineering, neurotic mother (a terrific Annie Giradot), and partakes in sexual self-mutilation that prevents her from finding later-in-life romance.
Perhaps a more pleasant filmmaker would turn The Piano Teacher into some sort of Marty (1955). But Haneke is more beguiled by Kohut’s self-destruction and the way she seems to get off on humiliating others and by maintaining utmost authority in even the most vulnerable of a situation. Why is she so incessantly cruel to her students, so willing to be the dissenter in a popular opinion, and so eager to travel to porn theaters in the day and look in the widows of steamed-up cars at drive-ins in the night?
The insinuation of likable, 25-year-old engineering student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) into her life sheds light onto Kohut’s fetishes and perhaps even how she’s come to be the woman she is now. Though Klemmer maintains that he prizes his more orthodox educational standing, he, now past his glory days as an archetypal university student, is determined to make it into the conservatory and pursue a musical career. Like Kohut, he has an affinity for Schumann and Schubert and has a way with interpretation that suggests he could become the next Horowitz.
After catching just a single glimpse of the woman, Klemmer becomes obsessed with Kohut, deciding that he’s both keen on getting into her class and also getting into her pants. Considering her rigid exterior and apparently nonexistent sense of humor, perhaps he sees her as a challenge, a slice of frigidity waiting to be warmed. Quietly, the erotic preoccupation is mutual. But when the sexual tension is broken, Klemmer uncovers Kohut’s wide array of fetishes and is left perplexed by the monster hidden within her.
And, like Klemmer, we’re perplexed by the monstrous Kohut, too, who despite her vices and her evils never proves to be neither unlikable nor likable merely because she’s both a victim and a predator. Victim of the repression at the hands of her stage mother and of the cruel yet fitting fate detailed by The Piano Teacher’s ending; predator lusting after the susceptibilities of her students and undermining Klemmer’s wanting of her despite the fact that she wants him, too.
Kohut is such an interesting character because it’s never clear what she really wants. Evening after evening is spent with her mother in their lonely apartment, the nights wasting away in front of the television, and, later, in the same bed. We can see that she’s slowly being destroyed by her sexual suppression and that she’d do anything to put it to an end.
But when her shot at romantic excitement comes, she sabotages it by making her masochistic tendencies prominent rather than something to be revealed later on, ruining her chances at love. She wants to be desired, but she’s also spent a great deal in the bathroom mutilating the organs that might help foster that love.
The uncertainty flying around Kohut’s motivations only increases our investment in her. She’s a knockabout of contradictions and enigmas, sometimes easy to detest and sometimes easy to pity. Huppert, of course, turns in a performance so exceptional we’d be damned to find another actress as capable of making a character as fucked as Kohut so unmistakably absorbing. And Magimel, then still in the early stages of his career, holds his own, turning what might have been a rote role serving as nothing more than a sounding board for Huppert’s proficiency to work off into something riveting.
In no doubt is the feature additionally a commentary on the oppressive nature of the classical-music industry, and how so many individuals who dedicate their lives to perfecting the works of long-dead composers are wont to become damaged as an effect of their doing little else besides practicing and perfecting. We wonder what Kohut'd be like if music weren’t focal and if her upbringing were predictable rather than primarily gathered around mastering the best of Rachmaninoff and Chopin and all their dauntless peers.
Finish The Piano Teacher and it’s apparent that it isn’t a film to be stereotypically enjoyed. Look at it more as a psychosexual drama better at being magnetizing than diverting. Because as far as magnetization goes, it’s a behemoth of cinematic mastery, all mystery and emotion and shock. You’ll be left reeling long after its credits finish rolling, and that’s the way it should be. A-
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
sabelle Huppert is a bonafide rebel, but over the course of her 40-year career has she made rebellion seem blasé. Whereas perceived acting queens Meryl and Cate have put on various wigs and accents to prove that few actors working today can much top their ability to transform themselves into comprehensively differently women, Huppert has arguably done something more demanding. Though able to comfortably slip between genres like a snake unafraid of its prey,