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With: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot
Written by: Michael Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
Directed by: Michael Haneke
MPAA Rating: R for aberrant sexuality including violence, and for language
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 130
Date: 05/14/2001

The Piano Teacher (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Out of Tune

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher comes with a huge amount of critical buzz from both the French critics and the East Coast critics. While I agree with them more often than not, I was completely baffled by this film.

I rolled it over in my mind a few times before I came to the conclusion that the film takes on sexual repression as its subject, and uses it as a kind of horror film without actually embracing the horror genre. And taken as a straight drama, not everything in the film makes sense.

It also occurred to me that movies about sexual freedom, such as Crash, Baise-moi and 40 Days and 40 Nights, tend not to receive the same kind of praise as films about sexual repression like this, Trouble Every Day and Romance. Why are we so willing to celebrate repression and suppress freedom?

In any case, the magnificent Isabelle Huppert deservedly won the best actress award at Cannes for her role as Erika Kohut, the steely, rigid piano teacher who never takes any joy from music, either in listening to it or playing it herself. Similarly, none of the conversations about music in this film comes with any passion -- only cold knowledge and memorized facts.

The only thing Erika seems to enjoy is tormenting certain of her students for reasons unknown (possibly because they've dared to take on Schubert, Erika's area of expertise?).

Erika lives with -- and even sleeps with -- her mother (Annie Girardot), and has presumably always lived that way. The mother still scolds the fortysomething Erika for coming in late or buying clothes. There's mention of Erika's father, who may have died in an asylum. Clearly this unhealthy relationship is the source of Erika's misery.

A young, good-looking piano enthusiast named Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) falls for the older woman and attempts to woo her. He quickly finds that her sexual appetite exhibits itself in odd directions, like a weed attempting to grow out from under concrete.

She makes him stand still while she fondles him to within an inch of satisfaction, then backs off. She later writes a letter detailing the humiliation she wishes to endure by his hand. He grows increasingly angry at her for her "sickness" but can't leave her alone. He eventually breaks into her home and rapes her.

I can mostly understand wanting to tell a story about a sexually repressed woman who still lives with her mother, but director Haneke doesn't seem to care about why Walter would become such a monster, nor why Erika would purposefully destroy her top student by dumping broken glass into her coat pocket. It's as if Haneke is just being mean for the sake of it, wanting to see how much of this we'll take.

I very much enjoyed Haneke's previous film, the mysterious and magnificent Code Unknown, which invited the viewer to take part in an unsolved universe, presenting odd snippets of various stories on a huge array of subjects.

That was an original screenplay from the director, and The Piano Teacher is an adaptation of someone else's novel, which leads me to deduce that he undersold his own talent to make a more acceptable and distributable film.

However, if acting students don't mind sitting through this grim film, they can learn mountains from Huppert's performance, which I won't deny is the film's strongest asset.

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