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?
Anything you’d like to say about this movie, or the review? Leave a comment below:
The Dark Side of Cinema: Episode One: Irreversible
This is the first of a short series examining films that are often booed for their graphic and explicit content, but really have an important tale to tell.
Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible caused an uproar of controversy following its release at the Cannes film festival in 2002. Hundreds of people walked out of the film before it had finished, finding it too shocking, violent and disturbing to watch. I was not at Cannes, but I felt similarly when I did see it. I did not turn it off, however. I continued playing the DVD and when I reached the end I was not relieved that it was over or anything like that. No, rather I put it back to the beginning and watched it again. This is a dangerous thing to say, but I don’t want you to get the right idea. I did not get some kind of sick thrill out of Irreversible, but the reason I watched it twice was, as silly as it may seem, to make sure what I’d just watched was completely real, and that none of it was my exaggerated imagination projecting images on to the screen. Oh, no. I can assure you, this is all very real. To a degree, of course. The film itself is just a film, but it is a brutally honest film. Most brutally honest movies are dramas about suburban life (American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Ghost World, etc.). This does not explore suburban American life. This is the life of two men and a woman living in France. They are happy. They are together.
The woman, Alex (Monica Bellucci) is dating Marcus (Vincent Cassel), ages after breaking up with their mutual friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The three of them go to a party, but it does not end well. Marcus is drunk and annoying, and after an argument, Alex leaves the party. She goes to the road and attempts to hail a taxi. A woman standing nearby tells her to take the underpass (“It’s safer.”) She does so, and in a brutal, controversial, terrifying extended sequence, she is raped and beaten to near-death by a shadowy figure named La Tenia (Jo Prestia). Following this, Marcus and Pierre decide to get revenge and hunt down La Tenia, travelling through a dark, shady S&M sex club called The Rectum. They find who they believe to be La Tenia and Pierre smashes his face in with a fire extinguisher. The end.
But, alas, that is not how the story actually goes, and allow me to inform you of what makes this R&R (rape and revenge) story so special and distinct from the other bloody, gratuitous films like it.
For starters, the events I’ve described to you are not told in chronological order. No. Rather, each scene appears in reverse order, so that we are presented with the final bloody vengeance at the beginning of the movie, and the calm before the storm at the end. This technique completely changes the way we look at the film, and makes it even scarier and more effective than if the events were in normal, forward order of time.
It helps us to understand and grasp the horrible nature of the human soul and the amazing lengths to which we would go to avenge the assault and violation of a loved one. Of course, not all of us would go as far as Marcus and Pierre, but it just goes to show that you never really know what you’d do in such a situation until it arises.
If the film were in order, then we would just be presented with a useless TP (torture-porn) movie about rape and revenge. Reversing it changes the aspect. We see this man beaten in with a fire extinguisher toward the beginning, and we ask why? What has he done to deserve this? Then later on we find out and this completely changes the way we look at the scene. This is why I watched the film twice.
The first hour or so is completely different from the last thirty minutes. All the blood, gore and violence is presented, and then we are given a half hour period of calmness, fun and laughing for the viewer to meditate and think about what they’ve seen. We are shown extensive footage of Marcus, Pierre and Alex as good friends, which makes the events they’ve already committed (from our POV, anyway) even more disturbing. It’s a clever effect.
As well as the excellent plot structure and character development, the film also has several other things going for it, namely Gaspar Noe’s awesome cinematography. Throughout the first half hour, the camera swoops and turns all over the place, creating a sense of disorientation and vertigo. He also uses low-frequency sound effects which are inaudible to the human ear, to create an uneasy and sick feeling to make the viewer feel even more affected. These are clever and memorable techniques, and enhance the amazing experience that is this film.
It is extremely ignorant to label this film a violent snuff-fest of rape and murder. It is so much more than that. It is a message about the human mind, and a very well-done one. In the film’s haunting final scene, which takes place before any other events have occured, the camera shows Alex relaxing in the sunshine as the camera swoops around the outdoor landscape and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major (also used in The King’s Speech) plays and a series of bright, rapid flashing lights occur on screen and a final title appears: Le Temps Detruit Tout. Translation: Time Destroys Everything.