The Piano Teacher has won three awards at Cannes, and at various screenings in Europe and America, it has caused patrons to faint, sob, boo and at least one New York viewer to reportedly suffer a breakdown. Patently subversive for its insights into sexual "aberration," Michael Haneke's shocking film stars French actress Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose orderly life comes undone in moments of sexual adventurism.
The Austrian director's story of a controlled and controlling piano teacher at a Vienna conservatory received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Cannes film festival and won stars Huppert and Benoît Magimel best actor awards. And the titular character's extreme, complicated displays of masochism have earned it critical raves and sell-out crowds during its New York opening.
An extreme rendering of the peculiarities of one person's mind, Haneke's provocative, extraordinary film opens by establishing the perversely co-dependent relationship between Erika (Huppert) and her aged mother (Annie Girardot). Her mother chastises Erika for spending money on a new dress and Erika reacts by physically attacking her. The off-kilter element of control that defines The Piano Teacher clearly emerges from this home, where Erika seems at once painfully immersed in her mother's affections and repulsed by the hold her mother keeps on her. At its core, The Piano Teacher is a film about control and power, and how characters gain pleasure or exercise revenge by using it.
That fundamentally child-like relationship is complicated by signs of a very adult fire burning within Erika. In her free time, Erika haunts a local adult bookstore, sniffing discarded tissues from the trash while watching hardcore films. She spies on couples having sex at the drive-in. The gestures are on one hand perverse, but on some level they are also understandable as an extreme, anarchical affront to the restraint and emotions voiced through Schubert or Brahms found at the conservatory where she teaches. In multiple scenes where Erika instructs her students, Haneke gives his audience a taste of yet another power dynamic that defines the film: the unequal relationship between a domineering instructor and her cowering, but devoted students. Erika's instruction is mercilessly cruel, but her students clearly worship her, just as Erika clings to her mother's bosom despite her hostility.
Though Erika eroticizes a loss of control and the fluids and excesses of a body that rebels against intellect, she clearly can't give up control. When she becomes sexually involved with Walter Klemmer (Magimel), a sophisticated student whose insolence seems to be a reflection of his social privilege, things become much more complicated, then violent and ugly. Erika gives Walter a detailed, perverse list of instructions of what he can do to her, and suddenly the dynamic shifts. Women are meant to be carried away, to lose control in sex and Walter is disgusted by how Erika emasculates him by asserting control. Although bound and beaten in her fantasies, Erika is still on top.
The Piano Teacher hinges on an incredible performance by Huppert. Every gesture is precise and neat, her clothes functional and tidy. Erika looks like nothing so much as a piece of chalk: hard, perfect, her life seemingly devoted to fulfilling her function as a gifted teacher. It is when Huppert allows us to see fissures in this brittleness -- when she breaks down crying in the bed she shares with her mother or begs for Walter's affection -- that we understand the depths of Erika's feelings. Just like the refined, beautiful musical compositions in the film, control cannot hide all of the roiling, unpleasant passions that fester in the human animal.
Erika is a woman terminally frustrated by an inability to get what she wants. In film, as in life, women are rarely given an opportunity for such sexual expression, and for that reason, The Piano Teacher seems to have deserved its celebrated and radical reputation.