If ever there was a date movie to rival Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, for sheer "what the hell was I thinking when I put this in the DVD player?" squirm inducement, The Piano Teacher is it. This film is dark — soot and coal dust on black construction paper in a windowless concrete bunker at the center of the Earth dark.
The Piano Teacher tells the story of, well, a piano teacher, Erika Kohut (Isabella Huppert), actually a professor, at a Vienna conservatory who lives in a small apartment under the constant shadow of her elderly mother (Annie Girardot). Erika is a scholar of both Schubert and Schumann, and knows not only the notes of their music but the intent behind the notes. Erika understands the structure of the music, but not the passion within it, she understand the politics of music, but not the humanity within it, she is, for all intents and purposes devoid of humanity. She browbeats her pupils with them at every occasion. And like so many students who strive for greatness, accept her disdain with thanks.
One pupil we will spend some time with is Anna (Anna Sigalevitch) who is preparing to play in the Conservatory Jubilee Concert. Anna is not attractive, but she is a very good piano player.
Erika, when not rushing home to mother, spends her evenings in peep shows and prowling drive in theaters when not mutilating herself with a razor blade. Obviously she has some serious issues. And while the film does not attempt to blame anyone in particular for her strange secret behavior, it suggests that her mother carries much of the responsibility for Erika's distance from normal society.
What we have here is the subtext setup for an exploration of Sado-Massochism in its most subtle form, the mental and later the physical, creeping madness, and sexual/emotional repression.
When she plays a recital for some friends, her music and her beauty attract the attention of teenage engineering student Walter Klemmer. He is also a piano player, and Erika immediately sees that he has the appropriate passion for Schubert and Schumann, and ultimately for her. But Erika is so far removed from the normal movements of society that she cannot maintain even a civil human relationship with anyone. I sort of describe her this way, Erika is on the outside looking in, but still so far away that her breath doesn't even fog the glass.
Erika is attracted to Walter, but she cannot begin to fathom what a normal romantic relationship is like, and by her own admission, has no feelings whatsoever. Walter pursues her to such an extent that he enrolls in the conservatory where she teaches the master's piano program and is accepted against Erika's protests.
Walter's presence at the conservatory and in Erika's life shatters her structure. She now has to deal with feelings that are, by all accounts, completely alien to her, and as Walter will learn, completely alien to him and everyone else.
To say much more about the plot would be a disservice to the film.
Michael Haneke, the director of such difficulty films as Funny Games (1997) is a reactionary and political film-maker. A self described deconstructor of American cinema, his films are known for their use of traditional Hollywood plotlines but he twists and turns them so they are not only a reflection on the film tradition he borrows from, but an indictment, The Piano Teacher less so as it is based on a novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelenek. Though, considering that the central plot of this, "older teacher falls in love with passionate student", is like half of all American romantic comedies maybe not.
Heneke eschews broad camera movements for long static takes of facial expressions, he ignores movement in place of static characters, he lights the film brightly but it still manages to have a tinge of noir to it, and most of all, he allows his actors to exist in the shot and outside it.
Michael Heneke also allows the audience to fill in the details, so the gore would barely warrant a PG 13, and the sex is barely visible (except when Erika is watching someone else have it), but it sure seems like the film is much more gratuitous than it actually is. In some cases the very implication of what she's doing is enough to make most people turn from the screen in at least one scene.
The Piano Teacher allows us stunning intimacy with regard to Erika that it was as if she had become a demented houseguest. Literally, he will focus on her as she listens to a recital for three or four minutes. The subtlety of Isabella Huppert's facial expressions, or often lack of them, is mesmerizing.
The DVD from Kino Video offers The Piano Teacher in 1.85:1 letterboxed, in original French with English subtitles. The DVD also contains an interview with Isabella Huppert and the trailer.
Dark and almost clinical in its examination of a life on the very fringe of normalcy, The Piano Teacher is an amazing journey into the life of a woman consumed by emptiness.
But it ain't no date movie.