Piano Teacher, The (La Pianiste; Die Klavierspielerin) (France/Austria, 2001) ***1/2
Directed by Michael Haneke. Written by Mr. Haneke, from the novel "Die Klavierspielerin by Elfriede Jelinek. Photography, Christian Berger. Editing Monika Willi, Nadine Muse. Production design, Christoph Kanter. Music, Martin Achenbach. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot, et al. A Kino International release. In French with subtitles. 130 minutes. Not rated.
The word " extraordinary" may be used to mean something like "great," as in "we had an extraordinary lunch in that Michelin three-star French restaurant." Or it stands for "entirely different or unusual, unlike any other, etc."
At the 2001 Cannes Film Festival , this movie won three major awards. The Grand Prize of the Jury (not to be confused with the topmost Palme d'Or) went to "Piano Teacher" and its director. I have a feeling that the originality and daring of the movie were the main criteria. Best Actress and Actor Prize went to Isabelle Huppert and to Benoit Magimel, for, no doubt, way, way out roles extremely well played.
Mr. Magimel (b. 1974) has been in about 25 films but in international film circles he is no household name. The opposite is true of Ms. Huppert (b.1955), who has appeared in 80 or so movies and is a prima donna. The third major role was that of veteran Annie Girardot (b.1931) who, in another venue, won the Cesar (the French Oscar) for Best Supporting Actress in this film.
The current English-language title is somewhat deceiving. There's an alternate one, "The Piano Player," that of the book as well as of the French and German releases. There's a completeness about it since Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is both a first-rate Austrian pianist and a superior, hard-as-nails teacher at a Vienna Conservatory of Music. The ideal title would have been "The Pianist," but it was probably preempted by the Roman Polanski film which recently won the Cannes 2002 Golden Palm.
Erika is 40-something an lives with her mother (Girardot) in a fairly ordinary apartment. Her unseen father has been in a lunatic asylum for years. That's a clue to "bad blood" in his daughter. She and her mother have an ambiguous, bickering, mercurial love-hate relationship. The older woman --whose main preoccupations seem to be drinking and watching TV-- treats Erika as though she were still a child. The two ladies fight about everything, from Erika coming home hours after her teaching is done, to her mysterious alibis and to her purchases of clothes. Note too that they sleep in the same bed, a not insignificant detail on several levels.
It's an unhealthy situation which rapidly reveals that the musician is a mentally sick, very sick woman. As a teacher she is first-rate, but also intolerant and cruel to her students. This cannot be separated from the full ball of wax of who and what Erika is.
At a private recital where she plays, she meets another performer, 20-something Walter Kremmer (Magimel) who is most talented. It is, for her, antagonism at first sight (and hearing.) Walter is an engineering student with a passion for classical music, notably for Bach, Schumann, and especially Schubert who is also Erika's favorite. (Note that Huppert played Clara Schumann in "Clara,"(2000) which just preceded "The Pianist.")
Walter falls in love and in lust for the older woman. He applies to the Conservatory to study with Erika, and is accepted in spite of her single vote against him.
Things are becoming wildly complex and complicated. We learn a great deal about the woman who is psychologically and sexually a mess, a basket case of frustrations and fantasies. Erika watches porno films in a cabin; she stalks couples making out at a movie drive-in; she mutilates herself; it is a long, long list. Is she a virgin at 40-plus? Who knows? What we witness is a gallery of sado-masochism, of very, very strange behavior, of cruelty and violence to herself and to others. All this is shown in scene after scene, especially when an amazingly peculiar relationship with Walter gets going.
The movie is not rated. It is explicit, but in its own weird and "creative" way. If my readers want details, please check reviews other than mine. Let me add however that the only nudity seen is in the porno video watched by Erika. This does not prevent the two main characters from underlining a great deal.
It seems to me that Isabelle Huppert, a consumate performer, has bared her breasts in movie after movie of all nationalities, including that 220-minute American fiasco "Heaven's Gate" (1980.)
The quirky, outrageous and excellent 1974 "Les Valseuses" with Gerard Depardieu ("Going Places") was the first international hit where Huppert had a small part. She remained fully clothed. The breast exhibitions came after that. But there is just a single, quick shot in "The Piano Teacher."
The movie is powerful, to say the least. Its was entirely shot in Vienna but with its total concentration on Huppert (and Magimel) it has no room for the usual "atmospheric" shots of the surroundings. This causes no problems. The music is fascinating, and in many ways, so are the themes of degradation in humans. But the one strange point is that all the characters, including the three headlining French performers who play Austrians speak French. It is very well and fully subtitled, but adds an extra bizarre note to an amazingly quirky picture.