Porn to Lose

The Piano Teacher plays in the key of kink

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the French film The Piano Teacher, aside from Isabelle Huppert's unnerving and masterful performance, is the totally nonexploitative manner in which the story is presented. A tale of sadomasochism and self-destruction, the film easily could have succumbed to the inherently lurid aspects of its intense subject matter, yet German-born director Michael Haneke, no stranger to controversial material with such films as Funny Games and The Seventh Continent, resists the temptation. Directing with a sure and measured hand, he steers clear of the sensational and offers instead an unflinching and objective look at a decidedly perverse pathology.

Adapted from a book by Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher focuses on Huppert's Erika Kohut, a dour, rigidly self-contained woman in her early 40s who still lives with her mother (Annie Girardot, also excellent) and who teaches piano at a prestigious Viennese conservatory. When not fighting with her mother or bullying her students, Erika can be found at the local sex shop watching hard-core porn while sniffing the semen-encrusted paper towels left by the room's previous occupants. Her face, however, remains expressionless. Not even her eyes register any emotion.

The story kicks into high gear when Walter (Benoît Magimel), a handsome student 20 years Erika's junior, fancies himself in love with her. After initially resisting his entreaties, Erika attempts to enlist him in the sadomasochistic fantasies that fuel her inner life.

Smokin' in the Boys' Room: Benoît Magimel and 
Isabelle Huppert.
Smokin' in the Boys' Room: Benoît Magimel and Isabelle Huppert.

Details

Based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek

Opens Friday

The Castro and the Rafael Film Center

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Although the film is being released unrated (rather than get slapped with an NC-17), anyone hoping for titillating sex scenes will be disappointed. Perverse though it is, The Piano Teacher -- which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, as well as top acting honors for both Huppert and Magimel -- isn't interested in catering to the viewer's voyeuristic curiosity. A seduction scene in a restroom is highly suggestive, but nothing concrete is shown. Another scene finds Erika wandering through a drive-in theater, searching for couples making love. She squats beside one car and, while spying on the lovers, pulls down her underpants, not to masturbate but to pee. It's not the kind of activity the audience is expecting, but it certainly says a lot about Erika's damaged psyche.

In fact, a therapist would have a field day with Erika, a poster child for emotional disconnectedness. Her face remains almost completely impassive throughout the film. Even when her eyes mist over or tears roll down her cheek -- clear signs of emotion -- her face never betrays the misery or sadness or longing she must be feeling. She is in such denial about her feelings (or perhaps so incapable of dealing with them) that she transforms them into a pure mental process.

Interestingly, Erika never tries to separate from her grasping, demanding mother, who has insinuated herself into every aspect of her daughter's life and constructed a world of emotional claustrophobia. Although Erika has her own room, she sleeps in her mother's room, the twin beds pushed together without a hair's breadth between them. Erika has no privacy; her mother cross-examines her every time she goes out and waits up for her to return every night.

Erika gives as good as she gets, however, exhibiting a viciousness that not even her mother can match. She screams invective and lashes out with her arms, slapping and hitting the old woman before both dissolve into tears and guilty whimperings of regret and devotion. This bizarre ritual of love and hate plays itself out over and over again, an emotional bonding as unbreakable as the physical tissue that unites Siamese twins. It is this twisted relationship that lies at the psychological heart of the film, even as Erika's sexual taunting of Walter -- and the toll it takes on both characters -- increasingly occupies the story line. With his dispassionate eye, Haneke makes no judgments about his characters. He is not out to assess blame, or even to probe the whys and wherefores of their behavior.

Stylistically, he and his director of photography, Christian Berger, make exceptional use of lengthy stationary shots. A sense of tension underlies everything, including a 45-second shot that shows nothing but the back of Huppert's head. This is, of course, partially a tribute to the French actress' extraordinary ability to command attention, even when not expressing any emotion -- or facing the camera.

In an odd way, Huppert has never looked more beautiful. Despite her severe expression and lack of makeup, her face communicates enormous character. She proves absolutely spellbinding. In the end, however, the viewer is left with no defined feeling. We neither pity nor condemn Erika, nor do we empathize with her. But we recognize and somehow absorb both the coldness and the vulnerability that define her. The Piano Teacher doesn't present any answers. Then again, it doesn't present any questions, either.

 
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