The Piano Teacher/La Pianiste
(If You’re Reading This, You Have Too Much Time on Your Hands)
(Movie Poster: Featuring Scene From the Conservatory Bathroom)
Disturbing. Unsettling. Gross. All words that aptly describe Michael Haneke’s Cannes-prize winning film, The Piano Teacher/La Pianiste
, a powerful new film starring the French actress Isabelle Huppert, that refuses easy psychological answers and turns a cold, objective camera eye on his characters. Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a music professor and piano instructor at a Vienna conservatory (though everyone, despite their German names, and the German-language signage, speaks French), who exists in a twisted, abusive codependent relationship with her domineering mother, the central relationship in the movie, a relationship that poisons all others. After a short, partial credit sequence (like all of the credit sequences in the film, simple, small, unadorned white font on a black background, projected in complete silence, very noticeable in a film containing lost of classical music), we are shown a quick sequence that encapsulates their relationship. Erika returns home and is immediately badgered by her mother (Annie Girardot), who follows her around their shared apartment demanding to know where she was and what she was doing. The soon come to blows as Erika attacks her mother, calling her a “Bitch,” and a “Cow,” and violently tugging on her hair. In the aftermath of their fight, Erika’s teary-eyed mother manipulates her daughter through guilt.
Something is definitely wrong here, a woman in hovering near 40 who is completely under her mother’s thumb, a fact made more disturbing when we are later shown that Erika and her mother share the same bedroom, sleeping in a pair of twin beds pushed together (another unsavory facet of their relationship, Erika’s mother doesn’t entrust her daughter with keys to the apartment, so she must ring the doorbell to be let in, and she is completely deprived of privacy, she can not even lock her mother out). We also later learn that her father is dying in an insane asylum (married to her mother, it’s little wonder why). This complete lack of control in her life leads her into a relationship with Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), an engineering student, hockey aficionado, and amateur pianist in his late 20s who becomes entranced with Erika at a salon recital. Erika’s attempts to assert sexual control of their relationship, and the her subsequent, and disastrous, loss of control fuels the plot of the film.
Mother and Daughter "Reconcile."(above)
Another interesting thing about this coda, is that it is one of the few moments in the beginning of the film that Erika ever really expresses any emotion. Most of the time, Erika is the model of stoicism and reserve, with a mostly blank facial expression (sans makeup), and a controlled voice, that raises only when she snaps at her students (in particular,a student named Anna, who she mercilessly berates). Early in the film, Erika wears severe clothing in extremely dark colors, blues, blacks, beiges, and browns, and keeps her hair in a bun. Erika is bourgeois repression personified, especially since she is an upholder of official bourgeois culture, though she is fascinated by Schubert and Schuman, two composers, she notes, that were driven mad. It’s not much of a surprise to learn that this upholder of cultural tradition is sick, repressed, and yearns for degradation. Erika haunts the local porno stores, watching videos in the private booths and sniffing the used and discarded kleenex from the wastebaskets (it’s interesting to note that other than the clerk, Erika is the only woman in the store, and that the crowd of men near the booths look at Erika strangely); prowls the local drive-ins, voyeuristically watching couples having sex, and then urinating; and, in perhaps the most infamous scene, mutilates her genitals with a razor blade (the film is replete with bodily fluids, besides the before mentioned semen, blood, and urine, though to be fair, the urine and the semen is mostly off-screen, we also get vomit, after Erika performs a blow job on Warner, and snot; when a crying student exits the auditions, we get a nice close-up of her tear streaked face with snot streaming down from her nose). Later she catches one of her students, a teenage boy, idly looking at porno magazines with his friends. At his piano lesson, Erika berates her student for looking at pornos and makes him apologize, though he doesn’t exactly know what for. She leads him telling him that he says he is sorry because “he is a pig,” that his “friends are pigs,” and that women are “bitches because they make men pigs.”
Erika meets Walter at a salon recital, where she plays a piano duet with another pianist. She attends with her mother, who, while expressing disappointment in her inability to become a successful concert pianist, seems to not care much about music in general, other than the potential financial rewards (for instance, she encourages her daughter to take on more private lessons). At the recital, Erika’s mother looks distinctly bored, she’s the only one eating during the recital, and she looks off to screen-left periodically during the recital (this would be where the other pianist is sitting); later, at the same recital, Erika’s mother bored by the proud music collector showing off his rare and priceless instruments. Towards the end of the movie, when Anna’s mother asks her if she is proud of her daughter, she replies “Why? It’s only a school recital.” At the recital, Erika meets Walter, the nephew of the patron; he is immediately enraptured by Erika, and chats her up afterwards; he then changes his own recital piece from a Schoenberg to a Schubert to impress her. Later, he attempts to sign up for her Master Class at the conservatory;
she expresses her misgivings (during his audition her face remains somewhat calm, but her body-language marks her as uncomfortable), but is outvoted by the rest of the faculty and is admitted.
Walter's Audition for the Conservatory Faculty (right)
Later, at the rehearsal for the school recital, while continuing to rebuff Walter, Erika is called in to quell a crisis; Anna is having major stage fright (confessing to suffering from diarrhea). Earlier in the movie, Erika threatened to keep Anna from playing in the recital, all nerves, Anna was crying tears (she had been practicing 8 hours a day) and her mother had to negotiate with Erika. After Erika leaves, Anna’s mother turns to her daughter and chastises her for her lack of commitment. Erika basically pushes Anna on stage, and she is uncomfortable until Walter comes up to her and gives her a few words of encouragement. Anna settles down, and giggles and begins to play. Erika is disturbed, possibly jealous, but of what, the fact that Walter usurped control of her relationship with Anna, that Anna was finally displaying her talents, or that Walter was paying attention to her? Erika storms out, goes to the coatroom and exacts her revenge by smashing a glass and putting the shards in Anna’s pockets. She severely cuts herself, and as Anna begins to scream, Erika retreats to the bathroom to urinate echoes perhaps of the earlier drive-in scene (after Erika cuts up Anna, she has a conversation with Anna’s mother later, where some parallels between Anna and Erika’s mothers are established; during this scene Anna’s mother worries about her daughter’s future, her scarred hands somehow preventing her from being a real pianist, and bemoaning all of “her sacrifices,” Erika blows up at Anna’s mother; later Erika’s mother makes similar statements about “sacrifices.”). Walter follows her to the bathroom, with it’s gleaming white tiles, and begins to passionately kiss her, though she somewhat resists; eventually she asserts control of the situation, saying that she will stop and Walter will never see her again unless he follows her orders. He is not allowed to touch her, and she begins to first give him a hand job and then a blow job (most of the action takes place off camera, below the frame; whenever he tells her that he loves her, she does something painful, and she stops whenever he tries to assert some kind of control); then she stops and doesn’t allow Walter to masturbate. She tells him that she will send a letter to him detailing what will happen next.
The next day after their initial sexual encounter, Erika has changed her appearance. In her next scene she is wearing a peach blouse with a red jacket, with her hair down, and even wearing red lipstick. Erika rebuffs Walter at their lesson, but he follows her home. They go to her room, to the consternation of her mother, and barricade themselves into the room to give themselves privacy. Walter thinks they are going to make love, but instead, she demands that he read the letter that she gave him earlier. He complies, it is several pages of handwritten, painstakingly detailed instructions of a violent sadomasochistic sexual fantasy which she wants to perform with Walter. He is disgusted and leaves Afterwards, Erika is desperate for contact and love, and pounces on her mother, kissing her and reaching under her nightgown; her mother resists and eventually Erika stops her attempts, and instead cuddles like a child against her mother.
The next day, Erika tracks Walter down at the hockey rink (again, she is wearing her hair down, and white, light, floral pattern dress); he is gruff with her but she pleads with him to talk. They go into a storage room
, and she is clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, asking for forgiveness (this puts her earlier comments about histrionics and Schubert into perspective; Erika fears her emotions, and with good reason, her emotions leads her into near madness). She offers herself to him, and begins to give him a blow-job. However, as soon as he cums, she vomits, to his complete disgust. She runs away, onto the blinding white ice of an outdoor ice rink).
Left, Erika and Walter at the Hockey Rink.
Later, Walter comes to her apartment. He demands to be let. She relents and lets him in. He harangues her for playing with him, and then locks her mother into her room. He begins to hit her, slapping her face; when she stumbles to the ground, he kicks her in the face. Perhaps the most repellant scene in the movie, it quickly takes the ugly overtones of a rape scene as he forces himself into her. But what really made this scene disquieting for me, was that he was “acting” out her fantasies (when Walter beats her, he yells at her to open her “cultured mouth,” again pointing to her status as a cultural producer). In the letter, she told him to hit her if she protested or resisted.
This realization left me with some disquieting ambiguity. Walter leaves the apartment and asks her not to tell anyone about what happened. Because he raped her, or is it because he was acting out her fantasy, something that disgusted him?
Erika after the Rape (right).
As Erika and her mother prepare for the recital, Erika packs a kitchen knife into her purse. In the lobby, she waits by herself for the Bronsky’s and their nephew, Walter, to enter the conservatory. Does she want to kill Walter? Walter and his family breeze past Erika, with Walter even offering some friendly encouragement. Expressionless (Erika is back to her old look, hair in a bun, no make up, severe, dark clothes, though this time she has a cream-colored, satin blouse on), Erika takes her knife out of her bag, and stabs herself in her shoulder. The blood begins to stain her blouse, and then Erika leaves the conservatory. The last shot of the film is a long shot exterior of the conservatory; Erika exists the lobby and walks off frame-right. The camera lingers and then there is a cut to the black, silent credits.