No director has been so oriented on sadism quite like Michael Haneke. The filmmaker has explored brutality through analyzing racial and social inequality (Caché and Code Unknown), exploring the origins of fascism (The White Ribbon), and testing the bonds of marriage (Amour). Haneke’s 2002 psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher, which won the Grand Prix the year before at Cannes, is exceeded only by Funny Games as the director’s most disturbing piece, taking upon the limits human ruthlessness to a whole new level. Like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher is deliberately difficult to watch yet is so hypnotically fascinating it’s difficult to look away.
As with many of Haneke’s other pictures, The Piano Teacher centers on the atmosphere of the European cosmopolitan and society and the stark reality that lies beneath its superficial veil. The film stars Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a strict and malevolent piano teacher who runs an advanced course at a prestigious Viennese musical school. Erika is demanding in her lessons, simultaneously both nonchalant and vicious as she bitterly attacks her students for even making the slightest slip when it comes to approaching the works of Schumann and Schubert, and her cruel indifference extends outside her classroom as well. Kohut is callous to her surroundings and lives in a dainty apartment with her mother (Annie Girardot), even sharing the same bed with her. Yet Erika’s coldness hides her repressed dreams and urges: she secretly frequently visits porno shops and indulges into sadomasochistic practices, even spying upon a contorting teenage couple at a drive-in for her own pleasure and committing self-mutilation. One of her pupils, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), is attracted to Erika’s bitter discipline, and the two embark on an affair that soon threatens to unravel both of the psychological states.
As the above synopsis suggests, The Piano Teacher is not an accessible piece for those unfamiliar with Haneke’s work. In particular, Erika’s behavior, especially within the film’s first hour, is so pitiless and severe that viewers can easily be turned off by the character’s sheer unlikability. But dismissing Erika as a purely despicable individual would be ignoring Haneke’s nuanced composition of the character as well as Huppert’s cool performance; through the efforts of these two, Erika is both psychologically and sexually underwhelmed, whose general apathy shrouds desperation for acceptance in society as demonstrated for her lust for Klemmer. Haneke’s trademarked style of minimalistic long takes emphasizes Erika’s claustrophobic mindset, forcing the audience to witness the onscreen viciousness and ponder upon the actions’ consequences, accentuated by a sex scene that is as unsettling as it is bizarre. While the level of nudity and bloodshed is relatively low, it is far more disconcerting than any modern day horror as it connects to a more human level, proving that reality is often far more terrifying than demons and the supernatural.
Though many may be repulsed by The Piano Teacher’s unflinching depiction of the human psyche, it is a thoroughly compelling and haunting tale that confronts the suppression of yearning and desire in its central protagonist. The Piano Teacher is one of Haneke’s most haunting and effective features.