The Piano Teacher

cast: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, and Benoit Magimel

director: Michael Haneke

125 minutes (18) 2001
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens

In Vienna, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) works as a piano teacher. Unmarried, she lives at home with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). Outwardly, Erika is harsh and strict; but she has a secret. Erika’s darker side manifests itself in visits to porn shops, voyeurism. She meets a promising young student (Benoit Magimel) who attempts to seduce her, and they enter into a sadomasochistic affair.
The Piano Teacher was Michael Haneke’s second film to be released in Britain in 2001. Code Unknown used a deliberately fragmented structure and long takes to express his film of the interconnectedness of people and their responsibilities to each other. The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek (apparently largely autobiographical, which is disturbing news in itself), is much more classical in style, though as before it demands considerable input from the viewer: Haneke deliberately avoids making any comments on the film’s action,

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letting the audience judge for themselves. This detached style is matched by a brilliant, considerably risky performance by Huppert, who expresses considerable emotion with the minimum of facial expression. She deservedly won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance here and should have had an Oscar nomination if the Academy were inclined to reward ‘controversial’ films. Since her breakthrough role in 1977’s The Lacemaker, Huppert has proved herself one of Europe’s finest, and most prolific, screen actresses.
Difficulty in interpretation is matched by difficulty in content – to be precise, many people will find much of this hard to watch. Haneke doesn’t spare us much: we see brief extracts from the hardcore porno loops Erika watches, and this progresses to her urinating in excitement as she spies on a couple making love at a drive-in cinema, to a seduction scene that takes place in a public toilet. Needless to say, this isn’t remotely suitable for children or anyone squeamish or easily offended, but none of it seems gratuitous: it seems impossible, but Haneke films his extreme material with some taste and discretion. Haneke remains one of the few European practitioners of the morally serious, challenging art movie, of which The Piano Teacher is very much an example. In an increasingly insular, not to mention dumbed-down, British film distribution environment, we need more films like this.
The Piano Teacher was shot with a mixed French and German/Austrian cast, speaking their own languages, and dubbed accordingly. As the three leads are French, we get the French language version (La pianiste) rather than the German one (Die Klavierspielerin), even if does give the odd result of Vienna being a Francophone city. There are two soundtracks, Dolby digital 5.1 and Dolby surround, with optional English subtitles.
DVD extras: interviews with Huppert, Haneke and Jelinek, a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s post-synchronisation session, and filmographies.