Synopsis: Winner of three top prizes at Cannes, including the Grand Jury Prize, The Piano Teacher is a lucid descent into the most feverish depths of sexual obsession. Isabelle Huppert’s Cannes and European Film Award winning performance (called “A brilliant psychological portrait” by Variety) effortlessly illuminate the darkest corners of the human psyche in one of the most courageous characterizations of her celebrated career. Huppert and her co-star (and fellow Cannes honoree) Benoit Magimel transcend mere art-house erotica as they plunge headlong into a whirlpool of twisted desire and rage.
La pianiste 8.25
eyelights: Isabelle Huppert’s stunning performance. its dissection of a severely emotionally-damaged and sexually-repressed woman.
eyesores: the disturbing final act.
“Why destroy what could bring us together?”
Based on the 1983 novel by Nobel Literature winner Elfriede Jelinek, ‘La pianiste’ is a 2001 Michael Haneke film about an emotionally-damaged piano teacher who is pursued by a young man, breaking through years of callousness, repression, and self-loathing. However, she lives a secret inner life, one that even this eager lover can’t begin to accept.
The film was nominated for and won many awards, including the Grand Prize and Best Actor and Best Actress awards at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. And rightly so: whether one likes the subject matter or not, whether one can relate to or appreciate the main characters, it is a potent and realistic portrayal of extremely complex and unhealthy interpersonal dynamics.
Right from the start, Erika’s harrowing home life is established, setting the stage for her unusual and erratic behaviour later in the picture: at an advanced age, she still lives with her mother, who verbally abuses her and plays emotional games to keep her tethered. Although they fight constantly, Erika always relinquishes her freedom and power to her, becoming trapped.
Her means of escape is by living out her sexuality in secret, which consists of all manners of kinkiness: visiting a viewing room at the back of a porn store and sniffing the used Kleenex, cutting her labia with a razor blade, prowling about the drive-in to watch couples make out while she urinates, …etc. It appears that she has never had any lovers or any other experience.
However, when she meets Walter, she believes that she has met her match and can finally share this part of herself. He is bold and defiant, not letting her cold exterior and brutal reproaches shake him. Fascinated with her, being himself an adept piano player who shares a passion for the instrument, he pursues her unrelentlessly, going so far as auditioning for her class.
She eventually comes to believes that someone so confident and dominant would not be fazed by her secret life, and decides to let him in, slowly, by controlling the dynamic and only allowing limited contact under unfathomably strict conditions. When she sees that he plays along despite all the misery that this causes him, she decides to allow him to see the darkest side of her nature.
But their relationship would only get more complicated when neither of their expectations are met; the situation spins out of control. Within little time, desperation fills the air and dementia takes over: Erika loses her grasp of reality, and the hard shell that held her together and kept her functional will crumble, while Walter’s initially pure intentions get corrupted.
Erika is a woman with severe emotional wounds. It’s hard not to empathize with her, to pity her really, because she has been repressed her whole life and has turned her anger and/or desperation on herself. It’s not exactly clear why she has confined herself to this existence, but it’s likely due to her relationship with her mother – who at the very least exacerbates it.
What’s sad is that, she has finally found someone who she feels may be a match for her. However, she mistakes his confidence for a penchant for dominance and plays her cards too early. When he is repulsed by her, she can only scramble to try to keep the one hope for salvation that she has. She is so desperate for this intimate connection that all composure is lost.
Isabelle Huppert is brilliant in the part. She is a phenomenal actress by any measure, but this is probably the part I’ll always most associate with her. Initially, utterly unapproachable, cold, distant, cruel (especially with her students), she hides under the guise of disciplinarian. Even her gaze is nearly-expressionless, leaving no hint of humanity, no vulnerability.
But when these thick layers are peeled off, a fragility is revealed; she is a deeply wounded bird. Huppert shows us the pain, the hunger, the desire with the utmost ability. The transformation is so complete that, by the end, when she suddenly puts on her carapace for a final time, utterly lost in feelings of rejection and revenge, we are shaken, disturbed by the sight.
Benoît Magimel is also superb as Walter, but clearly cannot compete with Huppert’s Erika, who is a force of nature. His Walter is a man fascinated with a woman he simply cannot begin to understand. He expects his attentions and affection to transform her into a willing lover, that she would eventually melt under his touch. For all his boldness, he is unprepared for her.
Magimel effortlessly shows us Walter’s frustration after their first encounter; he doesn’t know what to make of the situation, and doubt sets in. But when she reveals her demands, he is shocked, unable to comprehend what is being asked of him. How could he possibly accept this? Desire clouds his judgment and he doesn’t turn and run. But he should have – before it got worse.
Haneke fashioned his motion picture in an equally memorable way, immersing us in classical music and gorgeous shots of hands playing the piano (I was amazed to see the actors perform the pieces themselves, truth be told). It’s a technically masterful film. The only caveat has to be the fact that it was performed in multiple languages, so the dialogues don’t always synch up.
But, otherwise, “La pianiste’ is a completely engrossing picture. It shows us generations of emotional abuse transfer themselves, poisoning, damaging lives inexorably. It’s not a pleasant film, but it’s a fascinating one: anchored as it is by such an unforgettable main character, and a powerhouse performance to match, one simply can’t look away from the horrors hidden in these human hearts.
Date of viewing: August 5, 2014