The only way to discuss “The Piano Teacher” is in terms of one’s own reaction to it. Matters of camera angles, acting styles and story structure are almost irrelevant when your protagonist uses a razor blade to cut herself in very personal places. Self-mutilation — and that is just one of the bizarre things going on in this picture — trumps nearly any technical competence you could name.
And so my reaction to it is that I was bored for a good deal of the time, and frankly repulsed by a lot of the rest of it. There are movies whose content is disturbing in a “good” way, where the events of the film are in some measure redeemed by being thrilling, thought-provoking, well-acted, or whatever. Then there are movies like “The Piano Teacher” that are just unsettling, where your soul needs a bath afterward.
The story is of a frigid, cruel piano teacher named Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), who works for a great Viennese conservatory and who is known for belittling her pupils to the point of tears. At home, she has a horrific relationship with her exacting old mother (Annie Girardot); the very first scene is of an argument between them that leads to fisticuffs.
Erika does not have emotions; she does, however, have urges. Twenty-five minutes into the film, we get a glimpse of them, when she visits a pornography store and behaves in a fashion that may be understatedly described as unhygienic. Later, she corners a hunky and arrogant pupil, Walter (Benoit Magimel), and demonstrates that she is just as dominating in the bedroom — well, in the public bathroom — as she is in the rehearsal hall.
But no, we eventually learn, what she REALLY wants is for someone ELSE to be in control. Or does she? Her lengthy written manifesto to the contrary, Erika has little idea what will really make her happy. She is so shut off from her emotions — she honestly claims not to have any — that everything now is merely a desperate attempt to find something that will make her feel again.
Some scenes are repugnant and gross; others, truly, are dull. Director Michael Haneke (who adapted the screenplay from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel), is fond of using one camera to film an entire lengthy scene, and also of letting the scene drag on for several minutes longer than it needs to. The total time spent looking at Erika as she watches her surroundings with cold, passionless eyes is probably upwards of 10 minutes. More judicious editing would have helped this film considerably.
Where Haneke shows skill is in the way he handles Erika’s strange sexual proclivities. He does not draw attention to them in any way; they simply manifest themselves, and we are surprised not only at what they are but at how suddenly they appeared on the screen.
One gives Isabelle Huppert credit for a genuinely fearless performance. Her co-stars are serviceable.
From one point of view, “The Piano Teacher” is thoroughly successful. Haneke set out to shock the audience, and he certainly achieved that. But to what end? There is not enough merit within the film to justify its usefulness beyond that of high-class, slow-moving French porn, which may be what it is after all.
C (2 hrs., 5 min.; French with subtitles; )