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 (Benoit 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.
Unrated. Times guidelines: sex, some violence, much blunt language, adult themes and situations.
'The Piano Teacher'
Isabelle Huppert...Erika Kohut
Benoit Magimel...Walter Klemmer
Annie Girardot...The mother
A Kino International release of an Austro-French co-production of Wega-Film, MK2, Les Films Alain Sarde and Arte France Cinema with the participation of Canal Plus, Arte/BR, CNC, OFI, WFF, ORF and Eurimages. Writer-director Michael Haneke. Based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek. Producers Veit Heiduschka, Marin Karmitz, Alain Sarde. Executive producers Michael Katz, Yvon Crenn. Cinematographer Christian Berger. Editors Monika Willi, Nadine Muse. Music Martin Achenbach. Costumes Annette Beaufas. Production designer Christoph Kanter. In French, with English subtitles.
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