Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the title character in Michael Haneke’s most recent film, is not the sort of teacher who inspires her students and certainly not the sort who encourages them. Rather, her preferred method is to terrorize. This she does through a minimum of bullying aggression and a great deal of menacing hovering. Fräulein Kohut (the film takes place in modern-day Vienna) has the inflexible demeanor of a martinet, her blank stare of rectitude marred only by one slightly drooping eyelid, suggesting a sinister if not degenerate undercurrent. There’s an immediate sense of irony as this monster of repression admonishes her students for not being able to unlock the profound beauty of Schubert’s cadences, lashing them with inscrutable advice.
Erika, 40-something and unsurprisingly single, lives with her mother (Annie Giradot), an aging scold who treats her offspring as though she were still a child. Erika also has a secret life, frequenting porn shops, going into the solo booths and sniffing the semen-soaked tissues left behind by masturbating customers. When feeling more adventuresome, she goes to a drive-in theater, skulks about until she finds a car with a copulating couple, crouches down beside the window to spy on them and finally urinates on the ground in a crisis of satisfaction, tears of relief streaming down her face. And this, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg.
More is revealed when Erika becomes involved with the young prodigy Walter (Benoit Maginel). Walter is attracted to Erika partly because she seems oblivious to his charm; she’s the unattainable older woman, mysterious and remote. Erika, meanwhile, sees Walter as a potential collaborator with whom she can act out her complicated masochistic urges. Once the affair is initiated, she gives him a detailed list of the ways she wants him to physically abuse her. Naturally, he’s appalled and wants nothing to do with her fantasies. A bit later, inexplicably, he comes around. But while he was hesitating, a cathartic moment has occurred between Erika and her mother, leaving her feeling open and vulnerable. She ends up getting the brutal administrations she previously craved at a time when they could actually do her a deeper harm than she had desired.
Haneke adapted this story from a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, who sees Erika as a martyr whose bent proclivities arise from her stifling position as a handmaiden to (male) high culture, unable to express her own creativity. It’s a strained allegory, to put it mildly, and fortunately Haneke has superseded it with a more conventional psychological scheme wherein Erika’s desire for punishment arises from her inability to provoke her mother’s love. She wants Benoit to beat her in a locked room with her mother outside, unable to help; it’s a gothic variation on “I’ll hold my breath and die and then you’ll be sorry.” The motif of her porn shop and drive-in excursions is perceived degradation, though one suspects the urination scene has been added just to goose the viewer-repulsion factor.
The Piano Teacher won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 2001, but one is hard-pressed to see its appeal either as drama or case study. It seems like one of those films that people congratulate themselves for being able to discuss with a straight face. As a drama it’s a monotone of despair; as a case study it’s ludicrous. Huppert was also honored at Cannes, as best actress, and while her performance is undoubtedly an impressive technical achievement, it’s also off-putting and, again, tedious.
Still, one can’t deny Haneke’s abilities; he means to rattle us and he does. And if it all ends up a sad mess, then that’s what he gets for trying to salvage Jelinek’s whack polemic. His direction is restrained, implacable and cool even when there’s a riot of emotion within the frame. That and the canny use of Schubert — a mad and exhilarated excerpt from one of the last sonatas, a foreboding song from Winterreise — makes the film interesting in a distanced sort of way. One watches, evaluates and remains untouched.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.