29 July, 2010

Movie Review: The Piano Teacher (2001)

Austrian director Michael Haneke once said, "[My films] are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus." Certainly, nothing comes easy in a Haneke film. Exposition is rarely offered, and things usually taken for granted such as division between "good" characters and "bad" are here denied. In place of honest monologues and meaningfully edited action, Haneke substitutes silence, well-placed, drawn-out moments of silence during intervals where conventional filmmakers would offer answers. The placement and duration of these pauses is sufficient to require an involved viewer to begin deciding what questions he or she needs resolved and, in the process, to begin trying to solve them. Whereas the concise speed of conventional films offers no opportunities for pondering until after the end credits have begun to roll, Haneke's films are equal parts puzzling presentation and ponderous pausing. While perhaps tedious to some, the movies of Michael Haneke effectively cement themselves in the minds of their viewers.

The titular character of La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher or The Piano Player) is Erika Kohut, a woman of uncertain quality. Played by Isabelle Huppert with no cosmetic frills, she is a grim, pale, stony woman, her hair, clothing, and face tightly constrictive. In the movie's opening scene, she is presented sympathetically as a late middle aged, depressed adult still living under the domineering presence of a manipulative, aggressive mother (Annie Girardot). In subsequent scenes, however, the film presents a thoroughly cold and unlikable side of her as she completes a day of work as a piano instructor at a Viennese conservatory. Grilling her teenage students, she is unyielding, negative, and demanding, insulting her pupils for failing to grasp what she, as a skilled, lifelong pianist, has come to appreciate.

Erika's mother, in her typical way of seeding virulent ideas in seemingly offhand, tangential remarks, suggests one reason for Erika's frigid approach toward her students: jealousy of competition. Suggesting that Erika should prevent her insecure student Anna Schober from becoming too competent in Schubert lest she step on Erika's toes as the modern master of the composer's complex works, the mother reveals that Erika's ultimate desire is not to teach but to do. Despite her accomplishments as a specialist of Schubert, Erika has never succeeded as a concert pianist. Her career as a teacher is a backup plan, a second choice, and it puts her in the awkward position of wanting to teach her students well, but not wanting to teach them well enough that they might prevent her from achieving her ultimate dream.

This frustrating fantasy--that despite her age she might still one day succeed as a professional musician--continually fueled by her mother's insistence, drives Erika to commit a diabolical act. Frustrated by Anna's growing success days before a school recital that, according to the mother, just may have important people in the audience, Erika secretly slips glass shards into Anna's coat pocket. When Anna shoves her hand into them, her fingers--and her possible career as a pianist--are destroyed. Erika does what any teacher must do; in order to allow Anna's fellow musicians the opportunity to perform in the recital, Erika fills her position as an understudy. And so the culmination of her irrational jealousy results in an awkward fulfillment of her desires: she will get to perform in front of these speculative "important people" in the audience, but she will be doing so as a fortysomething woman at a school recital with teenagers. What seems like a worthwhile fantasy is sometimes a miserable reality.

And that's the theme of this disturbing film: the crucial differences between positive expectations and their realistic fulfillment. Erika is, it's assumed a virgin. Despite her stern and serious appearance, however, she possesses the sexual desire of a hormonal adolescent. After work she visits sex shops in order to watch graphic pornography in the private booths, sniffing the semen-soaked tissues from the wastebasket. At night, she prowls about drive-in movie theater lots, hoping to find couples making love in back seats of cars. Her responses to sexual arousal are natural and bodily, but wholly abnormal: sexual stimulation causes her to cough, to urinate, to vomit, and to bleed. Her orgasms are physical eruptions and releases, yet they are far removed from normal sexual responses and instead are the symptoms of illness and injury. (To be fair, however, the bleeding is not spontaneous but a direct result of her having cut her labia with a razor blade in the bathtub.)

Her sexual fantasies are likewise unconventional. When she meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a young, charismatic engineering student who shares a similar skill in and passion for Schubert, Erika sees an opportunity to express her sexual self honestly. Walter is handsome, healthy, active, and masculine. An intelligent, practical, ambitious charmer, he is also perhaps the first attractive man to ever openly express an interest in Erika. She resists his desire to be a typical, dominant, male lover, however, and eventually confesses to him her real sexual needs in a lengthy handwritten letter detailing physical abuse, bondage, submission, humiliation, helplessness, and rape. She reveals a box full of ropes and tools she has collected for these purposes. She doesn't want tenderness, she wants to be brutally subjected to physical sensations. She wants to be overpowered by sexuality. She wants a tactile, unavoidable manifestation of the psychological, subversive control that her mother exerts over her everyday. Oddly, though she wants to be dominated, she details these desires in perfectly regimented instructions and rules. The constraints of wanting a specific fantasy fulfilled--in other words, needing to communicate this fantasy to another person and direct that person like an actor--are at odds with the submissive, spontaneous, uncontrollable nature of the fantasy. Whereas an unspoken aspect of any fantasy is that it plays itself out naturally without being discussed and artificially created beforehand, the specific, unusual desires of her fantasy, cultivated over several decades, could never possibly happen without some prior rendering of the fantasy as rehearsed playacting.

Furthermore, Walter is disgusted. He doesn't want to be told what to do. He prefers his sex life to be unscripted and unregulated. He also is into traditional lovemaking, not loud, violent rape. He rejects her. She relents and persists, realizing that her honesty may have been to abrupt and startling and offering him an opportunity to do whatever he wants to do with her. Having bared her soul to someone, she doesn't want to lose perhaps her last opportunity for a sexual, mutual relationship. He, however, having learned more secrets about her than most people ever learn about another, cannot shake the reminders of what he deems disgusting and inhuman. Though she assures him that the specific circumstances of anyone's desires for love and sex are ultimately "banal" trivialities, his new knowledge that she is a sexual, biological, desperate creature presents an unconquerable challenge to his fantasy of her as a talented, controlled, sensible mentor. How can he respect her when she's titillated by being disrespected? And why would he want to have sex with anyone he doesn't respect?

A mark of happiness and a guarantee of success is an ability to convince ourselves that our fantasies and reality bear any resemblance. The Piano Teacher is a tragedy for Erika because it reveals her inability to form realistic, achievable fantasies and her recognition that when these fantasies come as close to being true as possible, they are never as good as she imagined they might be. The climax of The Piano Teacher is a disturbing and enigmatic depiction of this unfortunate fact. Though Erika convincingly informs Walter that she has no feelings, this is a lie, a mere fantasy that she wishes were true about herself. Though she keeps her emotions bound up and hidden, they are unleashed when she reveals her desires to Walter. The secret box under her bed that holds her sexual torture devices may as well be a Pandora's Box, for its opening chisels at her rigid exterior and reveals a frantic flurry of emotions beneath. She is desperate to be touched, to be loved, to be recognized, to be appreciated. In the bed that she shares with her mother, she frantically kisses, hugs, and touches her in a moment of strange incest that results in the mother beating her back and screaming at her. She pursues Walter, apologizes, berates herself, and offers him whatever he wants, but during an act of relatively normal sex, she orgasmically vomits. Misinterpreting her bodily reaction to his penis as the ultimate rejection of his manhood, he offers her insults and disgust. Finally, on the same night that her insane father dies in an asylum, a confused Walter forces his way into her apartment and offers her everything she wants.

Angry, frustrated, and confused, Walter accuses Erika of being a pervert. His frustration is genuine, but it also seems forcibly mustered, as though he's trying to play the role of an angry man. When he suddenly slaps her, he asks, "Not as you imagined, huh?" When her mother enters and tries to phone the police, he reacts instinctively and aggressively, throwing her in the bedroom, locking her up, and telling her off in a way that Erika must have wanted to do for decades. "'Forget your mother.' We have time. We have all night," he says. Then he pauses, closing his eyes and thinking. "Let's pick up where we left off," he says pointing to the place by the door where he slapped her. It's as though he's rehearsing, attempting to build a believable character while dealing with bad lines, forgotten actions, and interruptions. "Is this really what you imagined?" he pleads with her, and she shakes her head for an ambiguous reason--does she no longer want it or does she want it differently? She seems flustered and disappointed, and at one point it almost looks as though she rolls her eyes. It's not her job to direct him once the fantasy begins; he should be a better actor. Quoting her erotic confession, he hits her about the face. He beats and kicks her. She bleeds. She gives him a solid command to avoid hitting in the face and hands. But when she tells him to please stop, the request comes from a different voice. In her letter it predicted that she would say no and insisted that if she did say no, it meant that he should only be more aggressive. He is, but then he stops himself. He's not having fun, she doesn't appear to be having fun, and he's not even certain he's doing anything right.

He excuses himself to the kitchen to collect himself and drink a glass of water. Perhaps he takes off the costume at this point; perhaps he wishes to end the play. When he brings her back a glass of water, he sees her attempting to unlock her mother. Not part of the script, he reacts suddenly, smashing the glass and hitting her. Why is she trying to get him in trouble? Is she merely improvising, or is she actually trying to avoid his rape? When he responds violently, is it merely to protect his criminal self, or is he just trying to stick to the script? Is he raping her or not? Explaining that he's not enjoying the script and that it's time for him to play by his own rules, he rolls on top of her and begins to have sex with her in a tender, conventional, missionary position. He kisses her face, eyes, and mouth, though she doesn't kiss back. Her face is expressionless. She tells him to stop, but he keeps going. Finally, responding to her cold behavior, he deviates fully from the script, asking "Are you trying to tell me I should go?" She says nothing. He orgasms and then selfishly leaves.

They don't call the police. Maybe calling the police, given the evidence of the letter, would be ineffectual. Maybe they don't call the police because he didn't truly commit a crime. Maybe they're just scared. The next day, at the recital, Erika seems rather composed despite her bruised face. She brings a kitchen knife in her purse, and when Walter treats her as though nothing positive or negative had ever happened between them, she thrusts the knife into her own chest and exits the building into the night. Maybe she planned to kill him. Maybe she always planned to kill herself. The film closes without answering this question.

But it also leaves a host of other questions unresolved. The climactic sex act was undeniably a "rape," but was it nonconsensual, and if it was, then was it nonconsensual from the beginning or only at the point when Walter deviated from the script? Is there such a thing as consensual rape? Was it inevitable that Walter would leave Erika after conquering her sexually, and are the specifics of the sex thus irrelevant in regard to the fact that Walter was a teenage boy only after sex whereas Erika was after a deeper relationship? Does Erika kill herself because Walter rapes her, or does she kill herself because he leaves her and moves on? Or does she kill herself because she can no longer deal with having her emotions and desires exposed? Or does she kill herself out of embarrassment? Or does she kill herself because she realizes that what she wants and needs from life will always be unattainable? Does she even kill herself, or is it merely a showy display of masochism, an attempt to feel something near her heart despite truly being able to feel anything in her heart? Is she telling the truth when she says that she has no feelings? Can any relationship based on preset, unequal roles of domination and submission truly reach a level of loving equality outside of sex? Is sex really just a banal aspect of a broader love? Is Walter's statement after the rape that "love isn't everything" what truly kills her? And what role have Erika's domineering mother and absent yet important insane father played in her psychological development?

The Piano Teacher, which is Haneke's only theatrical film to date that was not based on his own original story (it is based on a novel by feminist Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, who later won the Nobel Prize in 2004), is the perfect representative of his "cinema of insistent questions." Anyone who watches the film must decide for him or herself what its intentions are. Having called it a perfect representative of a thought-provoking screenplay, however, I must admit that The Piano Teacher is not enjoyable film to watch. There are numerous scenes of what can only be described as sexual horror compounded with monstrous levels of psychological ugliness. Isabelle Huppert is uniform and convincing in her portrayal, but her character is inhuman and possibly psychotic, impossible to relate to on any emotional or personal level. While the film is fascinating and gripping, its outcome is bleak and discomforting, and whether or not a normal viewer has anything to learn from its psychology is questionable. The Piano Teacher is a remarkable film, but not a recommendable one.

The Piano Teacher (2001)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel)

1 comment:

nirvana25 said...

The summary you have here is beautiful. I saw the movie yesterday. Indeed, brilliant performances...Haneke's psychological vision always questions us.