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'The Piano Teacher' Instructs us in More Than Mere Music

Rhoyce Nova peers inside the repression and perversion of Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher as part of her series on French film actresses.

The cloistered world of Isabelle Huppert's Erika segues from beige to blood red when she encounters Benoît Magimel's Walter in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001).

From the outset, Michael Haneke's 2001 psychological drama, The Piano Teacher, entraps the viewer in the tightly wound, claustrophobic world of Erika Kohut, a middle-aged, classical piano instructor who sleeps in the same bed as her toxically over-involved mother. By day she is a slave to the rigidly structured institution of classical music training, and by night she is tyrannised by her emotionally manipulative mother. Sex, autoerotic or otherwise, is forbidden in Erika's buttoned-up world of neck-to-knee nighties and shared beds.

As the screw is turned ever more tightly on the psyche of Erika, played to perilous perfection by French actress Isabelle Huppert, her repressed carnal impulses take a decidedly dark turn, leaking out as voyeurism, self-harm, and a predilection for erotic urination. When Erika piques the interest of her much younger piano student, Walter Klemmer, played by a young Benoît Magimel in all his chiselled, cleft-chinned glory, her suppressed urges erupt into unadulterated sadomasochistic manoeuvrings that are at once bleakly menacing and saddeningly pitiful. Both actors won the Cannes Grand Prix Award for their performances.

The implacable stillness of Isabelle Huppert's face is palpably disquieting.

Magimel's Walter is as disturbing in his wanton, impatient physicality as Huppert is in her glacially ominous stillness. If Magimel is the wildcat ready to pounce, she is the cold-blooded crocodile calculatedly eying its prey. As their erotic dance descends into perversion, Erika's mind unravels, and a series of deeply disquieting, hard-to-watch moments reveal just how unhinged she is beneath those still waters. As the saying goes, 'It's the quiet ones you have to watch'.

Adapted by Haneke from Elfriede Jalinek's novel of the same name, the screenplay is as rigidly structured and the film as tautly directed as Erika's confined, hermetic world. Windows, doors, bars, and elevators hem the title character into her stiflingly matriarchal enclave whilst sharp, cold, monumental architecture dwarfs her in her institutional, patriarchal preserve. Yet, oddly, Erika's perverse sexual rebellion finds ways to refute them both. She cuts her intimate areas to spite her mother and her insidious sexual repression and, in an act of symbolic desecration, behaves with unseemly, licentiousness in the hallowed halls of the Vienna Conservatory.

Yet, for all of Erika's cold manipulation tactics, one cannot help but feel sorry for her, largely thanks to the virtuoso performance of Huppert. Just when the viewer is on the verge of repulsion at her antics, Huppert's Erika will show a flash of desperate vulnerability that melts the heart with compassion. The nuance registered in every flicker of her face as she traverses these emotions and the transformation of her body from rigid control to unrestrained impulse is simply epic to watch. Sadly, for the cordoned-off character of Erika, true intimate, human connection remains elusive, as signified by the breathtakingly brutal act of symbolic self-violence at the end of the film.

The 'tissue scene' is just one of the unforgettable cringeworthy moments of the film.

As the story teeters the tightrope between unbearably buttoned-down inhibition and a veritable convulsion of miscreant behaviour, the director skilfully transports us from distant viewer to empathic voyeur. When Erika is suffocating in her minuscule, tightly wound world, we are gasping for air, and when she is debasing herself on tile floors, we like shameful peeping toms, want to look away, but cannot. Frame-within-a-frame compositions entrap us in Erika's world while painfully long takes on Huppert's face, a portrait of conflict, have us palpitating with every indiscernible quiver. As Haneke expertly peels away the layers of Erika's repression, at no point does he shy away from her transgressive and taboo expressions of sexual liberation. Rather, he takes us along with every unrelentingly cruel and carnally depraved moment, daring us to cast the first stone of judgment.


RATING: ★★★★⚝


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