The Piano Teacher (2001) / Drama

MPAA Rated: Unrated, but NC-17 equivalent for aberrant and explicit sexuality    
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot, Susanne Lothar, Udo Samel
Director:  Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke

Review published November 21, 2003

Many of you will think I am not giving THE PIANO TEACHER a high enough rating, and many others will think I am far too generous. It's that kind of movie. With such controversial subject matter, you'll either be enthralled or repulsed, engaged or disconnected.  Or you can be like me, and exhibit all four before it's through.

Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a middle-aged piano teacher who is as strict on herself as well as her students, living with her meddling mother who she seems never to be able to please. She is a passionate woman about her music and interests, yet feels the need to repress them, lest her mother show displeasure. She soon meets Walter Klemmer, a younger man who has shown an interest in her, not only professionally, but romantically, but she is inexperienced in those endeavors, always fantasizing and role playing in her mind, but uncertain how to act it out. As Walter tries to get closer, she finds herself growing colder to his advances, although she has a certain way she wants to be treated all planned out for him, a kind of sex that seems out of place with being loving to Walter.

I would have loved to state that I thoroughly enjoyed THE PIANO TEACHER, as it features a memorably impressive performance by Huppert and good character work. It is quite competently written and directed by Michael Haneke, adapting the novel by Elfriede Jelinek. It's a character study movie, which merely means there's not a discernible plot other than to watch how a character interacts with people and things around them, and somehow it usually gels into a thought-provoking and satisfying viewing.

I fall somewhere between admiration and ambivalence for the film, applauding the talented work of the performers, but the story, while definitely sensational enough to keep me interested, seemed to suffer from too much inertia and excess in gratuity. Granted, one naturally would feel distant to a woman who is as cold and strict as Erika Kohut, but there is a point where her icy exterior melts, or I should say, shatters. We should feel something for a woman undergoing such sexual confusion. We should feel someone suffering from psychological madness. We should feel something for a woman that is crying out to be beaten and raped. We should feel something when she actually is. Yet, emotions never really enter the mix, ending up merely in a showcase of distasteful imagery, and all of the investment in Erika's character just never pays off.

I have sat through many unpleasant films before, some of which featured subject matter that is more difficult to stomach than THE PIANO TEACHER.  If handled with taste and care, enduring such scenes are worth it for purposes of a great film, leaving a lasting impression for the rest of your life.  A sour aftertaste is what THE PIANO TEACHER leaves, with the payoff of the rest of the film not worth sitting through images which serve to titillate rather than educate.  Great performances, great music, and competent direction aren't enough to overcome dispassionate storytelling.  If there is indeed pleasure in pain, why isn't the painful experience of THE PIANO TEACHER more pleasurable?

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo