Haneke’s shocking work daringly dissects the nature of love, sexual desire, sadomasochism and power with a fierce intelligence that is matched only by arguably Isabelle Huppert’s finest ever performance.
Dir. Michael Haneke
2001 | France | Drama | 130 mins | 1.85:1 | French & German
R21 (cut) for aberrant sexuality including violence, and for language
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel
Plot: Erika, a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, lives with her tyrannical mother in a hermetically sealed world of love-hate and dependency. Her sex life consists of voyeurism and masochistic self-injury. But when one of Erika’s students decides to seduce her, the barriers around her collapse.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize, Best Actor & Best Actress (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Disturbing – Sadomasochism, Desire
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
This review is of the uncut version.
Following up his first French-language film, Code Unknown (2000), which now feels like a masterpiece amongst his great films, Michael Haneke gave us one of his truly shocking works in The Piano Teacher.
Although one of his more conventional efforts as far as its narrative structure is concerned, The Piano Teacher pushed the envelope for European arthouse cinema by exploring themes that are more aberrant than usual, in this case of sadomasochism and how that plays out between a sexually repressed classical piano teacher, Erika (Isabelle Huppert), and Walter (Benoit Magimel), her student who’s infatuated with her.
Incidentally, both Huppert and Magimel won acting awards, with Haneke winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the last time the festival gave out multiple major awards to a single film after a policy change.
Huppert is sensational, giving arguably her finest ever performance, with her cold, passionless demeanour aligning with Haneke’s trademark clinically austere style of long takes and ‘bland’ mise-en-scene. It’s a match made in heaven (or hell), as the film descends (or ascends) into provocative territory.
“Don’t look at your cock. Look at me!”
Don’t settle for anything less than the uncut version. The nature of love and desire is dissected in the context of power plays, and the word ‘play’ here very much typifies the game Haneke wants his characters to indulge in.
Pain is pleasure, pleasure is pain. In other words, the hands that caress any instruments, musical or otherwise, can also do unimaginable things.
There’s a fierce intelligence as to how everything plays out, through grand gestures or clandestine actions; nothing is left to chance, everything is deliberate and deliberated.
A daring work of artistic intent, The Piano Teacher is uneasy to view, yet for those who have been challenged, it may feel on some base level gratifying, not because it is pleasurable to watch but that we find ourselves succumbing to its methods, willingly.