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'Piano Teacher, The'

'The Piano Teacher' is a sexual quagmire

Friday, July 19, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Piano Teacher," now at the Harris Theater, might otherwise have been titled "Sexual Perversity in Vienna." Setting the movie in the home town of Sigmund Freud is particularly appropriate -- he would have had a field day with Erika Kohut, the movie's title character, portrayed uncompromisingly by Isabelle Huppert.

 
 
'The Piano Teacher'

RATING: Unrated; contains explicit sexual images and themes, some nudity and violence.

PLAYERS: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot

DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke.

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

As for the rest of us, let's just say "The Piano Teacher" is not exactly the feel-good movie of the summer. Then again, that may depend on just what makes you feel good. Dr. Freud, where do we begin?

Although she is in her early 40s and teaches at a prestigious music school, Erika lives with her mother (Annie Girardot) in a vise grip of a relationship -- the movie begins with an argument that turns physical over Erika coming home late at night with a new dress hidden in her purse. When the argument is over, Mother goes to bed. So does Erika -- in the same bed.

The piano teacher takes out her frustrations on her students, interrupting them constantly with criticisms that can turn viciously personal. She gets particularly upset when any of them dare to essay Schubert, but we have heard Mother tell Erika that the composer belongs to her and that she should discourage the competition.

Still, we don't realize what Erika is all about until she walks through a nondescript blue door at a shopping mall into a porn shop, making the male patrons nervous with her cloth-coat respectability until she disappears into a viewing room, where she watches hard-core porn -- and we watch over her shoulder.

It's only a matter of time before Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), a handsome young man who seems to be trying too hard in complimenting Erika's performance at a recital, falls into her clutches. She plays him like a Liszt rhapsody, orchestrating his submission and humiliation before inviting Walter to return the favor. But it doesn't quite turn out the way she planned.

"The Piano Teacher," which won a grand jury prize at Cannes, fits into a stream of films that have been issuing from France in recent years that rub our face into acts of sexual behavior that are often abnormal in nature or linked to sudden, shocking acts of violence. These include the ironically titled "Romance," the understandably controversial "Rape Me" and the much-praised "Fat Girl."

Director Michael Haneke, who adapted "The Piano Teacher" from a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, specializes in movies about alienation and what the press notes call "emotional glaciation." In his movie "Seventh Continent," an entire family commits suicide. In "Funny Games," a pair of sadistic intruders holds a family hostage.

Erika and her mother are yet another fractured family -- I'm not sure if the movie says what happened to the father, but wherever he is, he's better off. Erika likes to watch, and not just porn -- she sneaks behind cars at drive-in theaters to watch people make love inside. She also likes to watch Walter squirm as she makes demands of him without allowing him release.

Haneke does the same thing to us. He makes us watch these mostly unpleasant people doing enormously unpleasant things in ways that don't allow the audience to get any more off the hook than Erika does with Walter. He is trying to make us feel like voyeurs, and even accounting for the excellent performances by Huppert, Magimel and Girardot, how much one enjoys "The Piano Teacher" may depend in part on one's capacity for masochism.

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