The All-Time Favourites #16: The Piano Teacher (2001)

Welcome to the All-Time Favourites Series. This series examines 25 of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, looking at them in depth with analyses of what makes them great, and cutting down to the most basic level, looking at plot, cinematography, writing, direction, acting and other things, to see what makes these great films tick. This week’s film is Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.

There is a series of shots that begin exactly thirty minutes into The Piano Teacher, that resonate within me in a hauntingly particular manner. They show Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a talented but fierce pianist, losing control for perhaps the first time, in a very subtle manner. She is listening to the younger Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), who is vying to be her student, play marvellously, with a keen ear. In a few shots which move closer to Huppert, closing in on her face and allowing the complex detail of her incredible acting skill to become clear. Her character is falling in love, and hates it. Earlier scenes have established her sexual rigidity and emotional confusion, but this is the first time we really feel the power of her infatuation, and how it is obviously going to overcome her.

Not too long ago I decided on my three favourite acting performances of all time. They are all performances delivered by female actresses, and Isabelle Huppert’s work in this film is among them. Huppert is an incredibly talented actress who can be gentle and light, desperate and hysterical or rigid and cold. Erika Kohut is one of the most terrifying and self-destructive characters ever seen on celluloid, and the brilliance and resonance of this role are all due to Huppert. As with all great actors, she completely embodies the role, and even the most subtle glance or nervous tic are all carefully, thoughtfully planned and characteristically perfect. The character of Erika Kohut must be one of the most difficult characters to accurately portray on screen, but Huppert’s attempt is a fierce success. Every element of it is simultaneously alluring, repulsive, curious and enigmatic.

Kohut teaches piano to a variety of middle/upper class students, but at all times maintains a constant veil of mystery and seriousness that makes her instantly, unmistakably authoritative. However, this is all a clever and carefully maintained veil. In reality, she is an emotional and mental mess. She lives with her worrying – and worrisome – elderly mother (played brilliantly by the late, great Annie Girardot) who maintains constant control over her daughter in an almost Fascistic manner. Their relationship is dismal and terribly awkward, and we grimace as we discover they even sleep in the same bed. Kohut desperately tries to evade her mother wherever possible. Her sexual repression has her locking herself in the bathroom and cutting her vagina with a razor, as well as sneaking off to porno parlours to sniff the used tissues of departed patrons. In one scene very late in the film she lies in bed next to her mother, wide awake and stiff. Then she jumps on her and kisses her, and we sense the extent of her sexual desperation and confusion. Rejected by Klemmer earlier, she is overwhelmed with emotion. This scene is one of many in which Huppert’s acting skill makes that of greats like Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier look tame.

Huppert does an incredible job of portraying such a disparaged, lost character, but much of the film’s coldness and unnerving creepiness is also the work of its director, Michael Haneke. Haneke, my third favourite director of all time and my favourite living one, does so many things brilliantly in his films (Cachè and The White Ribbon are particularly notable for having a very, very chilling and scary feel even when nothing at all was happening), and The Piano Teacheris no exception. The cinematography is icy and cold, and the camera doesn’t often move from its position. Some people say the film is let down by its third act, which fails to deliver on the buildup of the first two. I beg to differ. Not only does the film feature one of the most disturbing and dubious rape scenes in film history (again, Huppert is a fucking phenomenon in these scenes), but ends with a facial expression of horror, pleasure, grief, despair and ecstasy that no matter how many times I see it, makes me feel like I’m going to soil myself. Huppert is at times scarier – or to be accurate, more concerning – in this film than any villain I can think of. It’s like she was made to work with Haneke.

Michael Haneke doesn’t often use music in his films (Cachè has no score and not a single ounce of musical soundtrack whatsoever), but when he does it’s shattering. Consider the drums at the end of Code Unknown or the heavy metal punctuating the opening and closing of Funny Games – they were both deeply unsettling uses of music, and here Haneke uses music for a different purpose: to juxtapose Kohut’s confusion and desolation with the enigmatic power of music. Kohut is knowledgeable about music and musicians, and has very distinct taste. She seems like she understands it, though I don’t personally believe there is a single ‘understanding’ of any piece of music, and that all is debatable. Music has been a distraction for her throughout her life. It has made her anti-social and unable to deal with more pressing personal issues, and even the sound of the piano, perhaps her closest friend, seems to turn on her throughout the film in powerfully nuanced ways. This is definitely not a film about music or piano, at least not primarily, but Haneke uses it subtly in the background to add to the story in a manner few directors would consider or follow through on.

Haneke’s films are often considered impenetrable. His ‘art’ is sometimes scoffed at. His films are social lessons, and while some are less bearable than others (such as Funny Games, which I like but do think is one of the man’s weaker films), I honestly believe some are genuinely important (Code Unknown, my second favourite film of all time, is the most noble, important use of the cinematic medium to convey an important message about society’s flaws ever), and even the less impressive ones have those elements of Haneke that make them appealing and thought-provoking. The Seventh Continent, one of the best directorial debuts I’ve seen from any filmmaker, is a film about the emptiness of routine in a bourgois family life that would’ve given Luis Buñuel nightmares, and its themes resonate throughout all of Haneke’s work.

The Piano Teacher is one of the rare films from Haneke where the acting is so phenomenally good that we are drawn into it and away from Haneke’s directorial style. It’s still quietly effective, but this film really is Isabelle Huppert’s more than anyone else; she is the anchor that makes it the horrifying, bleak tragedy that it is. Every single aspect of her performance is perfect, and you cannot say that very often these days. This is one of the many reasons I love arthouse cinema. You would never get a performance as daring and hellishly brutal as this in mainstream movies, and if you did, it would be exaggerated by the director for over-the-top emotional effect (Haneke does the exact opposite of this). Huppert is wholly extraordinary; surely one of cinema’s greatest talents, and I remember turning to my girlfriend after rewatching this a while ago and saying: “Michael Haneke is absolutely fantastic in this Isabelle Huppert film.”

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Posted on July 20, 2012, in All-Time Favourites, Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Wow, this sounds incredibly moving. I have only seen one Michael Haneke film, The White Ribbon but it seems like he knows how to get across a statement with just the right amount of terror, not to much, not to little. I am planning on watching Funny Games but don’t know whether I should watch the original or the remake, insight? I have also only seen one Isabelle Huppert role in I Heart Huckabees, which was actually quite funny. Secondly I noticed you mentioned Luis Bunuel. Do you have any recommendations about which of his films to watch first, they sound interesting but slightly formidable. I watched Un Chien Andalou and Simon of the Desert, but I didn’t love either (except Simons final scene). Thirdly jesus I am rambling, would you mind checking out my blog at http://northwestmovies.blogspot.com/ and if you like it adding it to your blog roll? You’re a huge inspiration and I really respect your passion for cinema. Anyways keep up the good work.

    • Watch the original Funny Games.

      I absolutely love Bunuel. Any films of his you can find are good, but I particularly recommend The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, The Exterminating Angel and Viridiana. All amazing films. Sad you didn’t like Un Chien Andalou, but I agree with you on the final scene of Simon of the Desert. Bunuel is so clever and daring it’s impossible not to respect his bravado.

      I’ll give your blog a look! And thanks for the kind words!

  2. This movie looks good, will try and give it a watch.

  3. I know your a Paul Thomas Anderson fan. If you haven’t seen this yet, check it out.

    Sorry if this is against blogging etiquette.

    • It kind of is against blogging etiquette, but I appreciate it all the same, so it’s cool. I’m not watching the trailer for The Master though. I prefer to wait. Just a habit of mine, I don’t watch trailers for films I haven’t seen.

  4. I loved this film. It affected me so much, very surprisingly. I love Huppert in it. I love how everything that was to happen to her was unavoidable- like this was some real person’s life we were looking into. Really must see more of Haneke’s work.

    • To be honest Nikhat I wouldn’t have picked you to have loved this film but I’m delighted to hear you do. It’s amazing. I recommend you watch Code Unknown, Cache or The White Ribbon next. Those three along with The Piano Teacher are all the essential Hanekes.

  5. This movie is fantastic. I watched it upon seeing your glowing reviews of Isabelle’s performance and I was not let down. I now want to check out more of her body of work. She was so eerie in this role and yet I could not help but feel sad for her at the end of the film. Bitch is cray. Besides, any film with piano in the title is usually pretty good.

  6. I love this movie so much. One thing that really struck me about it was no matter how explicit it got, it manages to to communicate a repressed tone.One of the scenes that i think exemplifies this bets is when Erika watches the couple in the car

    Also, i don’t know if you knew about this already but Hubbert is going to be in the Eleanor Rigby movie.

    • You’re quite right, it does really show a repressed tone, like many of Haneke’s films.

      I didn’t know about Huppert’s latest project – I’m still catching up with her older films, such as La Ceremonie, which I’ve just acquired a copy of.

  7. Rialto was saturated in Haneke last month so I caught up on a lot of his work. Still not a big fan but The Piano Teacher was delightful awkward and frustrating.

    I think we are on opposite ends of the spectrum as Funny Games is his film I enjoy most, I’ve seen the German version once and the US twice. It’s so charmingly sinister.

    As for Code Unknown, I only watched it last month and practically remember nothing about it. I would probably watch it again if it came on and I certainly don’t recall disliking it but obviously it never struck a chord with me.

    The White Ribbon was fine but it think what deters a lot of people from Haneke is his films often feel anti-climactic such is the feeling I had with White Ribbon which built up such great tension only to end so unsatisfying. Even though it is completely intended to be left so unresolved, as is the nature of the story, it can rub an audience the wrong way after investing so much in the former events.

    7th Continent would have been so much more fun to make than it was to watch. In all fairness going into it blind would have been a far more haunting experience but not everyone respects spoiler alerts. I did not care one iota for the family. If they are so miserable with their bourgeois first-world problems then switch jobs, travel the world, take up a new hobby. Don’t be so maudlin and nihilistic that the only option is to top yourselves. PS spoiler alert.

    • I like both versions of Funny Games but I think Haneke goes a bit too far with them. I much prefer the subtlety of Code Unknown.

      Code Unknown is a quiet film that doesn’t really have any sudden moments of disturbing horror; more of a calculating, slow-paced dread that soaks into each image. Really gives me the shivers.

      I didn’t mind The White Ribbon‘s enigmatic ending. I think the mystery is far scarier left unexplained, much like Cache.

      I went into Seventh Continent blind and I think that was pivotal. Any family can get a new job or go on holiday, but what’s interesting about that? I think there are unanswered questions in Seventh Continent, and they’re what makes Haneke’s films chilling.

      Another great film is 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which is essentially a colder, more minimalist version of Code Unknown. Some really dark sequences in that movie, but they’re not quite as effective as similar ones in Code.

  8. I had this recommended to me a few years back and it’s been sitting in my Netflix Instant queue for ages. Reading this really makes me want to (finally) bite the bullet and watch it.

  1. Pingback: Introducing… The ALL-TIME FAVOURITES SERIES! « Southern Vision

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