Pianiste, a.k.a.
The Piano Teacher
directed by Michael Haneke
(Kino International, 2001)

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a prim, middle-aged pianist who lives in an apartment with her mother (Annie Girardot) and teaches piano at a nearby music academy. When she's not trying to scratch out her mother's eyes or berating her students for not performing their Schubert properly, Kohut is struggling to become that pianist that Mommy Dearest keeps reminding her she is not.

But there's a darker side yet to Kohut, one you wouldn't suspect until director Michael Haneke's camera takes you into the local porn shop where Kohut makes what appear to be regular stops onher way home from music lessons.

There are scenes in films you can't believe you're watching: this is one you almost believe you didn't see until Haneke follows it up with Kohut's visit to a drive-in, where she demonstrates considerably more interest in the live shows in the back seats of cars than in whatever movie happens to be playing.

Still, all of this might have added up to very little if it hadn't been for Kohut's chance meeting with Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), an engineering student with a fondness for Schubert and an obsession for Kohut. And it isn't long before Klemmer, a talented pianist in his own right, is auditioning for a spot in Kohut's master class, not to mention her heart.

But Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) is no Breakfast at Tiffany's. What results is a close encounter of the worst kind.

Pianiste is as brutally honest as it is brutal; a voyeuristic look into the lives of three dysfunctional figures, it's almost as hard to watch as it is to turn away from.

Part of the allure is the performances. Huppert hits all the right notes as Kohut, a straight-laced maiden on the road to a straitjacket, older in attitude than she is in years, except when she suffers an attack of raging hormones. Her effect changes so much from scene to scene it's sometimes hard to believe one actress is playing both parts.

Magimel is just as effective as Klemmer, though in a very different way. He's very good at tossing things off carelessly, until he realizes that to get what he wants, he's going to have to sacrifice what little moral fiber he has. If two lovers were ever less made for each other, cinema has yet to find them. To say they have issues is like suggesting that Arizona has sand.

Toss in Girardot as Mommy Dearest and you have a one-way trip into a heart of darkness that would have stunned Joseph Conrad, a study in just how far three dysfunctional figures are willing to go to fulfill one another's worst nightmares. If it's not the most depressing film ever made, it's surely not for lack of trying.

So why watch it? Well, for the performances, to be sure, and the cinematography. Haneke keeps his camera right on the characters and conjures up images that say much more than the dialogue. And certainly for the story, which if nothing else forms a kind of perverse morality tale, a warning about the dangers of sexual repression and misguided attempts to manage it.

It's a tale that's guaranteed to keep you guessing until the end, and then some.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 7 June 2003

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