in Criterion Month, Review

The Piano Teacher (2001)

I just realized out the nine films I’ve watched for Criterion Month so far, six of them have featured promiscuity or having an affair as a prominent plot point. Is this a coincidence? Or is there a reason I’m drawn to taboo subject matter? I think a parallel can be drawn with my passion for horror movies. I’m drawn to what that scares me. Watching things you feel like you’re not supposed to be watching is exciting. Uncomfortable, sure. But you can learn a lot about humans from discomfort. The Piano Teacher is thus pure unfiltered Michael Haneke.

I still don’t know if I like Michael Haneke. For context, I’ve seen both versions of Funny Games, Cache, Amour, and now this movie. What I gather from that group of films is that Michael Haneke is at times a cruel filmmaker. He subjects characters to demoralizing situations. He can be violent. He can be cold. That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement. So why do I keep watching his movies? Let’s get through this and maybe I’ll have a better idea.

The Piano Teacher was adapted by Haneke from the 1983 book of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek. It’s a story of a sexually repressed piano teacher named Erika (Isabelle Huppert) who lives with her mother and teaches at a Vienna music conservatory. Lonely, Erika develops fetishes like voyeurism and self-mutilation for pleasure. She takes on a charming new student named Walter (Benoît Magimel) and develops a crush.

Erika’s crush on Walter is so heavy that when Erika notices a female student flirting with Walter, Erika slips broken glass into the female student’s pockets that cut her hand hand and prevent her from playing in an upcoming concert. Yeah this is a Haneke film alright.

Erika’s eventual relationship with Walter is as passionate as it is sinister. At times, she humiliates and frustrates him. It’s kind of like a dominatrix thing but a lot meaner and with more Mozart. None of this sounds very fun does it? That’s part of the reason The Piano Teacher is one of my lower rated movies this month.

This is a well made film. It’s shot well. It’s acted magnificently. The music is good. But it’s mean. I don’t understand. I liked Funny Games and that movie is way more sadistic in its depictions of violence. I think it has something more to do with tone. Funny Games doesn’t feel real to me. This does. Funny Games is a quick 1-2 punch. The Piano Teacher is slow and deliberate. There is plenty of time to let the discomfort sink in.

Again, why do I keep watching this guy’s movies? He’s kind of a sicko, huh? Well I can’t deny his abilities on a technical level. That’s for sure. Haneke is never boring when it comes to shot composition. Whether it’s framing a piano concerto or two people having sex in a janitor’s closet, Haneke knows where to point the camera. I think the subject matter he chooses is interesting too. Very primal depictions of human nature being exploited.

For me it comes to balance. I don’t mind depravity if it’s offset by something else. The Piano Teacher is one long dour note. It’s beautiful but it wears on you. At least it wore on me. Was I uncomfortable. Yes. Was that the film’s goal? I don’t know. Maybe that’s what makes it unique. Maybe that’s what makes it a Michael Haneke film.