The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

For all its exquisite incomprehension, Michael Haneke's award-winning film is difficult to watch. Psychological damage manifests itself in many different forms. Why this should appear shocking compliments the director's objectivity and the actors' commitment.

Erika Kahut (Isabelle Huppert) is in her late thirties, a respected teacher at the Vienna Conservatoire. She conveys no warmth, charm or interest in anything outside her work. She bullies her pupils, appears to take pleasure in their distress. Emotionally she is a closed book, except at home where she fights with her mother (Annie Girardot), a volatile interfering woman.

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What happens next requires a leap of the imagination that some may find hard to accomplish. Walter (Benoit Magimel), a prospective pupil, becomes infatuated by her. He is blond, tall, good-looking and more than 20 years her junior. Love is blind, perhaps, but mad as well?

Erika's relationship with her mother is essential to understanding her character. Both are control freaks, with impossibly high expectations. Not only do they share an apartment, but also sleeping quarters, which seems odd after all these years.

The business with Walter comes to a head, so to speak, in the ladies lavatory at the Conservatoire. Even in matters of sex, Erika must have rules. Hers are unexpected, to say the least.

Haneke is a voyeur. In the chilling Funny Games, he made no attempt to explain the motivation of the young killers. In the abstract Code Unknown, the ensemble cast were observed, rather than manipulated. Although based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher "is a psychodrama without the explanations typical of a psychodrama," which is what attracted it to him. He likes to watch.

Erika's pain is real. Walter's anger is real. Haneke documents the humiliation and the desire, as a newsman might report a suicide. He is careful not to intrude and yet insistent on seeing everything.

Huppert and Girardot give performances of exceptional honesty. Magimel, in a role that seems less demanding, provides a powerful male presence. In the war between the sexes, this is a skirmish in the woods rather than a battle on the plains.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2001
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A pupil becomes infatuated with his teacher.
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Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot, Anna Sigalevitch, Susanne Lother

Year: 2001

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Austria

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