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.”