THE NEW YORKER
David Denby, April 2002
Professor Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), who gives piano lessons to advanced students at the Vienna Conservatory, stands at the window of her studio and hurls thunderbolts at the teen-age musicians. When a talented boy hits a clinker, she says, "A wrong note in Beethoven is better than a bad interpretation," which, she implies, is his real crime. Erika, who is both the heroine and the villain of Michael Haneke's audaciously brilliant "The Piano Teacher," has a masklike face and an air of indefinable hauteur. Again and again, she tells her students that they are spiritually inadequate, and though they may tremble and weep, they do not protest. It never occurs to anyone at the conservatory that Erika might be trying to destroy, not nurture, the young musicians. After all, harsh dismissal is an accepted style in Viennese music circles - Mahler himself, perhaps the most nakedly emotional of all composers, was often coldly sarcastic in person. Great music lives at the intersection of mathematics and spiritual exaltation, and Erika, who plays well and has keen insights into her favorites, Schubert and Schumann, always clothes her nastiness in the appropriate colors.
High-minded and rigorous, she has sacrificed everything for her work. She lives in an apartment with her hysterically possessive mother (Annie Girardot); the two of them take turns bullying and even slapping each other, only to fall asleep in the same bed like exhausted lovers. When a possible actual lover appears, an insolently charming student named Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), Erika fends him off with insults. But Walter, strong and quick, and as handsome as an Olympic skier, is not to be deterred, and after a few bristling exchanges he imagines himself in love with Erika. Walter has the sexual vanity of a young conqueror: he thinks he's going to melt the iron maiden with tenderness. But tenderness is the last thing Erika wants. She manipulates and torments Walter, trying to turn him into a lover who will humiliate her according to her own atrocious fantasies.
"The Piano Teacher," which is based on a boiling 1983 novel by the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, is about sadomasochism as an implacable human destiny. Those of us who love the movie will insist on the humanity of the portrait: Erika may be a nut straight out of the clinical literature, but she's also a remarkable dramatic creation - an appalling but plausible human being brought to life by one of the world's bravest actresses. "The Piano Teacher," which won the top prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a genuinely shocking work, and I sense from preliminary conversations that I'm going to have trouble convincing more than a few people that some of it is also very funny. At first glance, Michael Haneke is an entirely serious fellow. A widely produced German playwright, he began making feature films in 1989, at the age of forty-seven, and now works with French actors (he directed the piercing "Code Unknown," with Juliette Binoche, which played here last fall). Haneke is certainly not playful and naughty like Luis Buñuel, whose lyrical 1967 masterpiece, "Belle de Jour," revealed the fantasies and part-time bordello life of an outwardly proper bourgeoise - a movie that is the obvious reference point for "The Piano Teacher." This film, by contrast, offers a realistic representation of a disturbed personality, set in the solemn cultural center of great music and psychoanalytic theory. Yet the wit is there, beneath the surface, mischievously linking the outer world of Erika's accomplishment and the inner world of her destructive hatreds. Haneke's attitude is one of malicious curiosity fringed with respect. Erika is a monster, but we're not meant to pity her or dismiss her as pathetic.
Now and then, after class, Erika sneaks off to a posh video-porn parlor and watches the action in a little booth, or she wanders around a drive-in theatre and spies on couples making love. Eagerly, she draws ever closer to the abyss of exposure and disgrace. "The Piano Teacher" is a dance of self-annihilation: Erika has no interest in pleasure or release. The excitement she feels, in both its sadistic and its masochistic forms, is almost completely mental. She tells Walter that Schumann's Fantasy in C Major conveys a sense of losing one's reason (Schumann struggled with madness in the years after composing it); she would like to think that she can experience that state herself. Absolute control of art and of madness is her sole desire and her sole vanity. But messy life keeps breaking up the rigid mental rituals. In the scene that is the hardest to watch, Erika sits on the edge of the tub at home and cuts herself in a private place with a razor. We may think, Why are we being subjected to this? But in the middle of the scene Erika's mother calls her to dinner. The scary grandeur of Erika's self-purifying rite gives way to the daily banality of getting along with Mom, and the effect is irresistibly comical.
Haneke's camera moves with Erika in her prowls around Vienna, but often it remains still, perched above a piano and looking straight down at hands playing on the keyboard; or it holds Huppert's face in closeup as she thinks pure and dirty thoughts. Haneke avoids the sensationalism of movie shockers, even high-class shockers like Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Polanski's "Repulsion." There are no expressionist moments in "The Piano Teacher" - no scenes of longing, no soft-focus dreams or cinematic dreck. Haneke's frame is clear, lucid, and calm, and he is working with an actress who can draw fury out of extreme elegance and self-containment. Huppert's thin eyebrows are arched down, matching the downward curve of her mouth, and her reddish-brown hair is pinned tightly around her head. She seems as composed and symmetrical as a figure in an Old Master painting. Much of her best acting is no more than a flicker of consciousness, barely visible around the edges of the mask. Yet she gives a classic account of repression and sexual hypocrisy, unleashing the kind of rage that the great Bette Davis might have expressed in an old Warner Bros. melodrama like "The Letter," if only she had been working in an unfettered climate.
My guess is that Haneke's long experience in the theatre has shaped his idea of characterization as a form of armor for warfare. Each of Huppert's scenes with Annie Girardot, for instance, turns into a power struggle fraught with hints of incest and abuse, and Erika's flirtations with Walter might have been scripted by a Strindberg with a flair for musical banter. "Disdaining Bruckner is immature," she says to him - which is true but is not a line I ever expected to hear in a movie, even a movie set in musical Vienna. The intellectual patter (all quite authentic) rattles across the field like Napoleonic musketfire. At first, Erika tries to use her powers as a teacher to dominate Walter. Benoît Magimel has bow lips, a cleft chin, and a springing step-good looks enhanced by high spirits - and initially he just grins and rolls with the punches. The two have a long encounter in the conservatory's bathroom which may be the strangest sex scene in the history of the movies - it's a stop-and-go business in which they both fight for dominance. In the weeks that follow, Erika exasperates her young lover, but he retaliates: Walter acts not according to the instructions he receives but with the commonplace violence of an angry man asserting his superior strength, and Erika, disobeyed, is bereft.
"Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft," Erika says to Walter, and that's her dynamic range, too. I trust that music-lovers will not accuse Haneke of dragging Bach, Schubert, and Brahms (all heard at length) through the mud. The Schubert songs, with their delicate fervency, their sense of foreboding, offer a taste of the irrational, even a longing for it, within the frame of art. Like Schubert's music, the movie addresses the deepest feelings, where eros and murderous rages can easily mingle with transcendent exultation. Yet the music floats free from Erika's perversity - it's the healthy part of her fanaticism. She's both a debased person and a heroine of art. And "The Piano Teacher," which combines Viennese erotic obsessions with French and German film classicism, is heroic, too. But now the movie faces American innocence and literal-mindedness, which could consign it to oblivion. "The Piano Teacher" is a seriously scandalous work, beautifully made, and it deserves a sizable audience that might argue over it, appreciate it - even hate it. Professor Erika Kohut may have shameful secrets, but abandoning her story to an empty closet would be a greater disgrace.
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Peter Travers, April 11, 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES ARTS & LEISURE SECTION
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Kristen Hohennadel, March 24, 2002
PARIS - It takes a clever filmmaker to show a 21st-century audience of seasoned voyeurs things they think they should not see. In acclaimed movies like "Funny Games" and "Code Unknown" with Juliette Binoche, the director Michael Haneke dispenses with the routine blood and sex that Hollywood has trained moviegoers to stomach and instead shocks them by catching his characters in awkward, sometimes perverse situations - leaving the most disturbing pictures to the viewers' imaginations. A kiss might be shot from the back, a rape scene from the neck up, a stream of blood trickling down a leg all we see of a woman's self-mutilation.
When his film "The Piano Teacher," starring Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel, had its premiere last year at the Cannes International Film Festival, it was met with stunned silence, loud applause and scattered boos. Mr. Haneke's brutal, disarming and compelling story about a desolate, sadomasochistic piano teacher and the adoring student who pursues her resonated with the Cannes jury, which gave it three top awards - including the best-actress award for Ms. Huppert and the best-actor award for Mr. Magimel. (Because there are only seven categories at Cannes, this was an unusually high number of honors, and the organizing committee has since changed the rules to prevent the acting prizes from going to two actors from the same film.)...
THE NEW YORK TIMES FILM REVIEW
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Stephen Holden, March 29, 2002
Stiff-backed and unsmiling, her dark eyes as opaque as cough drops, the French actress Isabelle Huppert gives one of her greatest screen performances as Erika Kohut, a haughty, sexually repressed priestess of high culture in Michael Haneke's powerfully disquieting film, "The Piano Teacher."...
THE VILLAGE VOICE
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Jim Hoberman, VOICE CHOICE, March 27-April 2, 2002
'THE PIANO TEACHER' The most controversial European art movie of the season, this tale of a former musical prodigy and her controlling mother provides a lurid study in sexual pathology, as well as a tour de force role for Isabelle Huppert. Michael Haneke - who orchestrates Elfriede Jelinek's supple, sardonic novel with his customary heavy hand-keeps the preternaturally poised Huppert on-screen for virtually the entire movie, as well he might. There's not another actress who could inhabit this Viennese specimen-heart consecrated to Schubert, head churning fantasies to make Sacher-Masoch blush - without seeming ludicrous...
NEW YORK MAGAZINE
Peter Rainier, April 8, 2002
In Haneke's new film, The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a stiff-backed piano instructor at a prestigious Viennese conservatory whose lust for her adoring student Walter (Benoît Magimel) exposes her deeply guarded sadomasochism. "Do I disgust you?" she asks him after he reads a long letter from her outlining her most depraved fantasies, and she could just as well be speaking for the director. Haneke doesn't really explore disgust, and he doesn't get into the emotional consequences of extreme violence, either. What he provides, instead, is the spectacle of witnessing experience freshly cauterized; you can't shake off the grisly moments in Haneke's movies because they have the shock of the real. His refusal to go much beyond that shock is part of what makes everything so creepy and sordid -- he doesn't offer a helping hand, he doesn't even try to intellectualize the depravity he's showing us. This is a roundabout way of saying, I fear, that Haneke is an exploitation filmmaker of the highest gifts. His movies are not to be entered into lightly.
Manohla Dargis, April 12-18
The cover of Elfriede Jelink's novel,The Piano Teacher hints at an intimate world of softcore pleasures -- a naked woman sits at a piano in high heels, a small clef sign tattooed on her backside. But the photograph is a tease, a con, for the world inside the book is cold and hard, while its pleasures are strictly intellectual. Published in 1983, the Austrian author's novel would seem impossible to film given its claustrophobic prose and the uncompromising quality of its vision, an unholy match of Baudelairean spleen and the sort of radical feminism not meant for the faint of heart. In all likelihood it was the take-no-prisoners quality of Jelinek's novel that first caught the attention of Michael Haneke, a German-born filmmaker whose own commitment to socking it to the audience under the guise of intellectual provocation has played out in such thuggish fare as Funny Games and Benny's Video. Neither of these films prepares you for Haneke's The Piano Teacher, at once an emotional thriller and a domestic horror movie -- a woman's picture with a vengeance, in which the bloodletting is kept to a minimum, and ends up all the more powerful and profound for it. Here, the smallest razor slice, even when hidden from view, can make you shiver -- or quite literally turn your stomach, as it did mine the two times I've seen the film. Here, screen violence isn't a matter of punishing characters in order to punish, or thrill, the audience, but rather a desperate bid for emancipation.
On it's simplest level, The Piano Teacher is a story of sexual repression. Cheerless and apparently friendless, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) divides most of her time between students she abhors and her equally hated mother (Annie Girardot), a shrew neither Jelinek nor Haneke bothers to name. Dressed in various ghastly floral-print housecoats, "Mother" is all mothers at their most wretched -- consuming, suffocating, eternally enraged at the child who's abandoned her womb. Indeed, there are flowers everywhere in Erika and Mother's apartment, a claustrophobic warren in which blooms are scattered across the upholstery, papered walls and dreary rugs like cemetery wreaths. Entombed in their apartment, Erika and Mother tear at each other piece by piece, feeding themselves on mutual need and loathing. (Alongside Ibsen's Nora and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, these two take their place in a tradition of fictional women whose interior lives play out along the contours of their domestic spaces.) Banished to an insane asylum, the Kohut father has been effectively replaced by the daughter, who actually sleeps next to her mother, shoulder to shoulder. Erika has another source of nourishment, however, which she taps furtively yet, startlingly, without shame: In porno arcades, she shuts herself up in private booths to watch hardcore sucking and fucking, a display she enjoys while breathing into the crumpled paper towels left behind by the male clientele.
Few actresses would consent to make huffing old semen such ladylike, delicate business, but Huppert is a rare and dazzling talent, a fearless actress of seemingly limitless range. It takes guts to play it this cold, to refuse the audience's charity. Jelinek writes of Erika, "This woman has not a spark of submission," and to Huppert's credit, there isn't a hint of submission or compromise in her performance. Even so, the Erika of the novel proves far less sympathetic than her screen counterpart, in part because of the humanity ingrained in Huppert's face, no matter how impassive her expression or sadistic her behavior. (She's unspeakably cruel to her students, but worse to herself.) For Erika, emotion is the enemy, a betrayer lying in wait. Her life has been devoted to old masters -- Schubert, Mother, Vienna itself -- a sacrifice that seems to have robbed her of empathy, leaving no room for anyone else. She likes to watch, but not to touch or be touched; she neither knows nor cares to know kindness, tenderness. She sniffs the human stain even as she scrubs at it, furiously. How, then, could she prepare for Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a devastatingly beautiful young man, a lover of Schubert and women both, who decides that he's in love with Erika -- or, perhaps, that she is simply ripe for the plucking. As it turns out, Erika's been waiting for him all her life.
What ensues is difficult to watch and impossible not to. The pair embark on an assignation -- love affair is too generous and gentle a phrase -- that takes them from one thwarted coupling to the next. It's all pretty horrible and embarrassing, and on occasion strangely funny, reaching its apotheosis in a letter Erika writes Walter in which she details her fantasies, what she wants him to do with her -- or rather, to her. He is appalled. Her requests are outré, outlandish, involving ropes, chains, wadded-up stockings, a rubber mask and more. But where Walter sees pathology ("You're sick!"), Haneke -- and, especially, Jelinek -- instead sees a woman asserting herself and her desires, staking a claim: It is, after all, the masochist who dictates just how tight the rope is to be tied. If Jelinek articulates the sadomasochist compact more successfully than Haneke, it's not only because she has an even more detached attitude toward its accouterments and possible applications, but because she has a keener grasp of male-female relationships in all their contradictions. She's also a better feminist. Her Erika is predator and prey both; Haneke's is more opaque psychologically, as well as a little too moist. In the novel, everything is as explicitly spelled out as Erika's list of desires, which is pointedly interrupted by one of Jelinek's funniest and truest observations about men, women and the distance between them: "Reading the letter, Klemmer infers that this woman wants to be devoured by him. Thanks but no thanks; Klemmer isn't very hungry."
Magimel plays Klemmer's attraction-repulsion note-perfect, and if the film were as good as its two leads -- and as tough as the book -- it would be brilliant; as it is, it's only spectacular, a brave and troubling if imperfect work of art, immaculately filmed, precisely directed, the sort you carry in your head for weeks, whether you want to or not. This is a film that, with a single terrifying, unforgettable close-up of Huppert's face twisted in the scream of a defeated Medusa, distills a universe of female desire, rage and impotence. Since its controversial premiere at Cannes last May, The Piano Teacher has attracted much attention, and opprobrium, principally on account of Erika's sexual kinks. Although this is unsurprising, it's also tiresome and adolescent. It's easier, too, because taking the film seriously, on its own difficult terms, also means taking seriously the everyday terror inherent in the struggle to find love and a sense of peace amid abject alienation; and taking seriously too that not all endings are happy. In recent years, Haneke himself has emerged from an aesthetic adolescence where he was too long in thrall to the mandate of épater le bourgeois. Like most art-house filmmakers who fill the screen with extreme gore and sadism, and the cultists who lap this stuff up, the director has tried to obscure his love for carnage with bankrupt rationalizations -- it's the audience that's guilty and so forth -- rather than just admitting it turns him on. It seems unlikely that Haneke will ever mine the depths of compassion, but with The Piano Teacher and his last feature, Code Unknown, an essayistic exploration of tribal violence from Paris to Bosnia, he has begun to leave the refuge of solipsism and self-justification to engage with the world and its living, breathing, all-too-human inhabitants. It's as if he's finally realized that while life is pitiless, we don't have to be.
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Kevin Thomas, Friday, April 12, 2002
Before the opening credits are over for "The Piano Teacher," director Michael Haneke has captured the dynamics of the relationship between Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) and her mother (Annie Girardot). Three hours have passed since Erika gave her last piano lesson at Vienna's conservatory, and her mother, with whom she shares an apartment in an old building, hasn't heard from her.
When Erika arrives home, her mother is both frantic and enraged; the two strike out at each other, exchange harsh words, but eventually the daughter crumples into tears. Even though Erika, drab and 40ish, has her own room, she and her mother sleep next to each other in twin beds in the master bedroom. Erika's father, we soon learn, has some time ago descended into madness and is institutionalized.
In adapting Elfriede Jelinek's 1983 novel, Haneke takes us and Erika on a harrowing journey in this taut, stark, sometimes bleakly funny and altogether dazzling film. Erika's mother could scarcely be more dominating or possessive, and she still dreams of triumphs for her daughter on the concert stage. At the conservatory, Erika is the severest, most exacting of instructors and has a profound intellectual grasp of music, with Schumann and Schubert her favorite composers. Yet because of her consummate skill and knowledge, Erika, who puts her hair in a bun, goes without makeup and wears the plainest of clothes, is much in demand.
Although Erika makes a remark that suggests she feels she could be losing her mind, there is no reason to suspect that her repressed existence won't continue in the same rigid pattern. Then along comes Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a handsome engineering student who happens to be a talented pianist. Walter can see that Erika is a beauty despite her dull appearance, and he is bright and sophisticated enough to parry with Erika intellectually. Her icy aloofness challenges Walter, who auditions successfully at the conservatory so that he can study with her.
His confident charm, obvious brains and talent, good looks and ardor are not lost on Erika, but she is such an emotional cripple that her attraction to Walter unleashes an avalanche of sexual aberrations that express the terrible distortions of her upbringing. Haneke explores these aberrations exhaustively but not exploitatively, and Erika's twisted psyche gives way to the sad larger truth that music does not seem to thrill her or give her pleasure. For her, teaching piano is a means of obsessively pursuing perfection to fill up an empty, emotionally starved existence. Erika realizes that from early childhood she has been expected to sacrifice her life for music, but there is a real question about whether she can deal with the love Walter offers her.
It took more than 15 years for Haneke, best known for his 1997 shocker "Funny Games" and a master at delineating alienated, emotionally frigid individuals, to to make "The Piano Teacher." He refused to make it without Huppert and cited her remarkable range that allows her to travel easily and swiftly from the pathetically vulnerable to the formidably intellectual. It is surely one of her most challenging roles.
Huppert won the best actress prize at Cannes last year, and Magimel, who can match Huppert at every turn, took the best actor award; the film itself won the grand jury prize. Despite these prizes and more, "The Piano Teacher" will surely be too strong for some audiences and is best left to those who like films that take big risks and get away with them.
* * *
Peter Bradshaw, Friday November 9, 2001
At the premiere of Michael Haneke's last film but one, Funny Games - that intensely bewildering orgy of off-camera violence - audiences started staggering out after about 20 minutes, offended, revolted or maybe just winded. At the Cannes unveiling of The Piano Teacher this year, I like to think the critical community crossed the finishing line in better shape. We were just numbly silent, twitchily uncertain of when to speak. Only one person was in tears. I was reasonably calm but I think I remember leaving the auditorium on my hands and knees.
Watching it for a second time diminishes the effect, but there can be no doubt of Haneke's extraordinary ability to generate scenes of nerve-jangling disquiet and intimately unpleasant trauma. He can simply put you in a place you don't want to be, and keep you there. And his directorial eye is always weirdly reticent: the sex and violence happen out of frame. There is no money shot in a Michael Haneke film. But you feel like you've taken a shot of some sort between the eyes.
Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her career as Professor Erika Kohut, a distinguished piano teacher and Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. She is brilliant, demanding, unsmiling: a martinet who humiliates her impressionable students - and she lives at home with her elderly mother, played by Annie Girardot, who in turn terrorises and bullies her.
Then a beautiful young student named Walter (Benoît Magimel) arrives on the scene, with whom Erika embarks on a very strange amour fou. Haneke reveals that the emotionally arid discipline of Erika's musical life, and the sado-masochism of her relations with her students and her mother, have turned her into a world-class sociopath. She is a secret porn and self-mutilation addict who icily agrees to an affair with the infatuated Walter, but on the understanding that the only "sex" they can ever have will consist of him beating her, in a series of macabre rituals fanatically pre-scripted by Erika.
This is the performance that Huppert hints at in the Chabrol movie Merci Pour le Chocolat: cold, malign and profoundly disturbed. Her face, innocent of make-up and adorned only by freckles, often looks like that of a strange 12-year-old living in her own private world. Close-ups look like the very last frame in Polanski's Repulsion: a freaky vision of a mad, murderous little girl. Huppert rarely allows expression other than, say, a wince of fastidious disgust at some error of musical interpretation or keyboard address. In fact the only real expression comes at the very end: an extraordinary grimace of wrenching pain and self-loathing.
A family movie it isn't. This could not be clearer than in the sequence in which Erika becomes insanely jealous at some (tiny) flirting going on between Walter and a girl his own age, a timid accompanist whom Walter is trying to coax out of stage-fright. Calmly, and with extravagant malice aforethought, Erika wreaks an unspeakably spiteful revenge on her. There is something more quintessentially evil in that scene, more wicked (to use that quaint word in its original sense) than in a thousand "violent" or "scary" movies. After watching it, I felt I could watch the ear-cutting in Reservoir Dogs or the eye-cutting in Un Chien Andalou while whistling a happy tune.
Mastering the piano is not shown as it is in Shine, or even in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: draining, but ultimately redemptive and wonderful. This movie proposes agony, even madness, entrenched in the music itself. In an essay about Glenn Gould for the London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice suggested there might be something inhuman in the discipline of the piano, perhaps because it is the instrument that most closely resembles a machine. The classical music canon and violence - it's a paradox gestured at in the torturer playing Schubert in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden or George Steiner's writings about Nazi death camp superintendents enjoying quartets. The transcendent beauty of art anaesthetises us to the squalor in real life, and the inordinate sacrifices necessary to create that art can deepen the squalor.
Some might conclude that by juxtaposing high culture and S&M filth, while offering no obvious palliative psychological explanation, The Piano Teacher is Euro art-shock porn. But that is to overlook its cold and steely brilliance: an inspired nightmare - chamber music for a chamber of horrors. And in her severity, her mad anger and tragic fear of love, Isabelle Huppert gives one of the most compelling performances to be seen this year.