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August 24, 2006

The Piano Teacher - 4

I wanted to like this film. I enjoyed Michael Haneke's most recent film Cache, and Paul says good things about Funny Games, Benny's Video is apparently mediocre. I play the piano and enjoy films that utilize it as part of the story. It seemed to be going well. Erika seems to be a relatively normal women who is on the faculty at a music college. She still lives with her mother, who is rather nosy and they argue and fight. Not enough to do any horrible damage to the relationship and they are able to reconcile, or at least tolerate, petty differences. A young man, Walter, meets her at a recital and he decides to pursue her. And they have an interesting conversation about Adorno's theory of music. Applying to be a student in her class, and generally being impressive. The film then takes a sharp turn, and the audience discovers that she is in fact a control freak. This manifest itself most in her sex life and she tries to convince Walter to beat her up as part of her fantasy. This steady decline in her ability to suppress here urges leads her to become a maniacal and evil bitch (trust me, bitch is the right word). In the end, she comes up against reality, and her fantasies are shown for what they are- only in her mind. Having seen some of the extra features the film makes a little more sense. The distinction between seduction and love is an interesting one and Erika thinks the later is driven by control. The other factor is that Haneke's work focuses on cultural critique, which means he may be pointing out the depravity of the world we live in behind closed doors in more universal terms. This seems like too much background knowledge for a general audience, so film theory fans (of which I consider myself a little more than a spectator, but not a player) can love this film while the rest of us just get disturbed. I'll leave it to Paul (I suspect he disagrees) in the comments to make an argument for why this film is worth watching.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001) is an intimate examination of sexual and masochistic pathology, social perversion, and heartless betrayal. Considering that this is a Haneke film, it should come as no surprise that the film views all of this through the mildly disinterested gaze of a voyeur rather than turning into an uplifting tale of love that overcomes psychopathology.

Indeed, piano teacher Erika Kohut (Isabelle Ruppert) is so entrenched in her masochistic condition that no proposition of normative desire, in this case Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), can possibly understand and mediate between a normal love and Erika’s preconceived desire for masochistic control. As such, when Erika finally reveals her true sexual leanings to Walter vis-à-vis a note, he cannot comprehend the extent to which her pathology separates them.

Any attempt to normalize their relationship is cannot be, since Erika does not know what a normal relationship consists of, since she instead turns to voyeuristic watching of young couples having sex and porn videos. When Walter finally breaks and commits the culminating crime, something between a forced sex / emotionless rape exists between the two. The fine line that negotiates between forced sex, which is what Erika essentially desires, and rape is so minute that even she is momentarily unsure of which has occurred. Ultimately, though, it is a rape, and this realization confirms to her that she is incapable of experiencing love the same way as others.

Yet, to further complicate our perspective, Erika also channels this masochism into her piano teachings. When a young girl student cannot properly play a piece being readied for performance, Erika sabotages her by placing shards of glass in the girl’s jacket. The inevitable lacerations deny the girl any opportunity to give a mediocre performance, and so Erika’s pathological commitment to the music is guaranteed. This aggression forces us to reconsider how to empathize with Erika, which is what Haneke, of course, wants. How do we empathize with a character that is so far removed from normal negotiations of decency and right and wrong? The answer: we cannot, but we can still appreciate the grim journey.

At the end of The Piano Teacher, there lies the irrevocable suggestion that Erika’s domineering mother fostered this pathological condition in her daughter. Yet the music and Erika’s devotion to it likewise fostered such a desire for control. And while this film is never truly fun viewing, it does explore psychopathology and its myriad repercussions intelligently and articulately. Ruppert gives a bravura performance in a role few would dare to perform, and the journey makes for a grim but engaging film.

The Piano Teacher: 8.5/10