Review: The Piano Teacher

I have been wanting to publish a review of this film for a long, long time, ever since I saw it last year. It is the sixth feature film from legendary, influential, shocking European director Michael Haneke, who I will unashamedly admit is one of my five favourite filmmakers of all time. While in my opinion, La pianiste (or as many of us know it, The Piano Teacher) is not his best film, it is nonetheless a vital pinnacle of his work and what he stands for as a director.

I’ve discussed many of Haneke’s films with various people (and am open to having discussions with anyone about his work). Some prefer his earlier films (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, Funny Games), whilst others prefer his latter stuff (Cache and The White Ribbon), but stuck in the middle of it all is this shocking gem.

Isabelle Huppert (in what I would easily nominate as the best female performance of all time) gives a riveting performance as the eponymous instrument instructor. She is a strict, lifeless, emotionless and unsmiling woman who criticises her students, lives in both contempt and love with her overbearing mother, and enjoys little of what life has to offer.

She does however, have one secret joy. She’s into sadomasochism. She goes to porno parlours to indulge her fantasies; although she only ever watches and is never shown masturbating. She inserts a razor into her vagina for pleasure, although the scene is as stale and cold as the bathroom she commits the act in. And she writes a long, long letter detailing her uttermost sexual fantasies and fetishes which she hopes to realize.

I know what you’re thinking; this probably is not the kind of film for you. But read on, because I thought that way too, but here we are and I’m arguing it’s one of the greatest movies ever made; certainly of the last decade, and undeniably of modern European cinema.

I cannot deny that the film is incredibly sexual, and sexually explicit; unsimulated pornography is shown in one shot, and is the reason for the film being unrated. It’s not suitable for children; even incredibly mature ones who could handle the heavy imagery would still struggle with Huppert’s character, her motives and reasoning. She is simultaneously the film’s protagonist and antagonist, and the viewer can see her as either one of these at different parts during the movie.

The film is filled with brilliant classical compositions, which give it a rich feel of a textured classic, and in both the music heard in the soundtrack, and more often the music actually played by characters, we get a sense of the emotion that went into these compositions when they were originally written, and what might seem like normal background music for any sort of important bourgeois occasion is startlingly turned into works of furious yet melancholic sadness, regret, and flaring humanity. The film makes modern rock and pop music seem blasphemous, and classical compositions seem heavenly, and powerful. It’s as if a world of this sort of music is the only acceptable world.

Back to Haneke: this is the only film of his that, to me, deals directly with sexuality. It’s not as if he considered it a taboo subject, but usually in his films, he deals with anti-social themes that are more commonplace, and strangely simpler to accept. Here he goes for the gut. Toward the end Huppert’s character gets a chance to live out her sick sexual fantasies, but the act of sex is made to look more like rape than an actual physical act of love, or even a consensual one.

The story kicks into gear when a handsome young student falls in love with her, and she is reluctant to accept that perhaps she will have a chance to see her desires in real life. The film’s most famous sequence takes place in a bathroom: Huppert and her student play many dark sexual games, but never have intercourse. At one point, Huppert gives the man oral sex but stops mere moments before he can achieve orgasm: she wants to be in control, which is strangely contradictory of her later desire to be controlled.

The journey is one of revelation for Huppert, who plays her character in a manner that whenever I see her in any other film, even something light and comedic, my mind is drawn back to this film. Every shot is carefully thought-out and filmed with incredible timing and perfection. Consider the final shot of the movie, when Huppert walks along a sidewalk, and the poles of something resembling an incredibly large gate are coloured to look like the keys of a piano. This is not accidental, and I am not insane for thinking so; Huppert was the one to bring it up in the commentary, and every time I see that shot it haunts me.

But no shot in the film (or in almost any film ever) is as sudden and haunting as the scene immediately prior to the final shot. In this unbelievably quick, somehow subtle and incredibly frightening scene, Huppert fetches a knife out of her purse and gives a shocking, disturbing grimace as she stabs herself in the shoulder; not to kill herself, mind, but just to cause that masochistic pain that gives her so much pleasure. But we get the feel from this scene that no matter what she does to herself, she will never feel pleasure again because she is a woman impossible to love.

I mentioned earlier that I would nominate Huppert for best female acting performance of all time. That might be a spur-of-the-moment exaggeration, but her performance in this movie just has to be the best I’ve ever seen from a female lead, and makes the film – although it is incredibly difficult to watch – worth seeing. If you’re concerned this film might not be for you, then maybe you’re right. But I implore you to see it anyway, and judge for yourself what you think. Even if the film is not your cup of tea, you’ve got to admit Huppert is fucking fantastic.

A case in point: watch this short clip. Look at the expression on Huppert’s face as she stabs herself. Doesn’t that just terrify you?

My Rating:

Average Rating:

Anything you’d like to say about this movie, or the review? Leave a comment below:

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on August 1, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I loved this movie…a lot. I saw another film by haneke and didn’t like it much(Not sure if it was one of his earlier ones or recent ones)

    • You mentioned a Haneke film you disliked in an earlier post (I think it was Benny’s Video). I love all his movies. His style, everything is just perfect about his films.

  2. A marvelous performance in a very interesting film. I adore Isabelle Huppert. I’m hard-pressed to think of another actress with such an immediate, compelling, sexual presence. She was also quite wonderful in Heaven’s Gate (where soon-to-be-disgraced wonder boy Michael Cimino reportedly had a difficult time getting the studio to approve her casting) and I Heart Huckabee’s. Apart from her accent (which is quite strong in English), it’s difficult to understand why more great directors haven’t taken advantage of her unique gifts as an actress.

    • I absolutely agree, she is fantastic. I haven’t had a chance to check much of her other stuff out, but she’s the kind of character actress I love. Apparently she’s going to star in Haneke’s new film, Amour, which is set for release hopefully in a year or so.

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