Review: The Piano Teacher aka La Pianiste (2001)

"The music is not purely descriptive"

“The music is not purely descriptive”

Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★  

What is it about the piano that writers and filmmakers find so fascinating? So fascinating in fact, that the last time i googled, there are already 140 movies made around this humble set of 88 black and white keys. Perhaps it is the intense robot-like discipline and countless finger-busting hours of practice needed that makes for a good documentary, or maybe it is the romance of the eternal pursuit of piano perfection that opens up the endless possibilities in their stories? Whichever might be the case, both scenarios provide a most fitting backdrop to the movie we are reviewing today, The Piano Teacher aka La Pianiste.

Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a talented piano professor in the Vienna music conservatory. Already in her 40s, Erika is a cold, detached and unsmiling piano prodigy that expects nothing less than perfection from her students. She terrorizes and destroys all of them whenever they make the slightest mistake, and she is never satisfied with their performances.

Oddly, Erika is still staying with her mom and sleeps on the same bed as her every night. They have a very intense love/hate relationship that swings from violent punch-ups to loving hugs and kisses. And to make things more interesting, Erika is secretly addicted to porn and self-mutilation. She frequents the local adult store and rents the filthiest smut to watch in the tiny viewing booths, while holding up used tissues left behind by previous viewers to smell their semen. Oh yes, and she likes to use a razor blade to cut her own genitals right before dinner…Yummmmmy! If these are the activities she does when she is alone, I wonder what will happen when she meets someone?

Hello Walter

Hello Walter

Enter 17 year-old engineering student Walter Klemmer. Having witnessed Erika’s flawless piano recital at one of his private family events, he makes up his mind to become her student. Although Erika is pretty impressed by Walter’s piano skills, she tries to minimize contact with Walter and denies his student application in the beginning, but eventually, Walter succeeds. Regular contact during classes and frequent intellectual debates on Schumann and Schubert soon bring the both of them closer together, but still, Erika maintains a detached facade and prefers a cat-and-mouse relationship.

The breakthrough came during one of her female student’s performances, when the student arrives late for a rehearsal due to a stress-induced diarrhea. Walter, being the perfect gentleman that he is, offers some support to help her through the rehearsal. Filled with jealousy and rage, Erika commits a heinous act so evil that it makes Freddy Krueger look like a saint. She crushes a glass and puts the broken shards into her student’s pocket, thereby destroying her right hand as well as her chances of taking part in the final performance.

"Look at me, not your penis!"

“Look at me, not your penis!”

Overwhelmed (overjoyed?) by the horrific incident, Erika runs away to hide in the washroom, where Walter confronts and forces himself on her. This time Erika relents, but she maintains the upper hand by controlling the situation and ordering Walter to do exactly as she says. It turned out be a rather bizarre and humiliating experience for Walter, to say the least.

The next day, like any other relationships, Erika writes in a letter, a set of ground rules for Walter to follow if he is serious about her. Unfortunately for Walter, the ground rules are unlike any other normal relationships, and involves lots of gagging, bondage, humiliation and beating that Walter must perform on Erika. Unable to accept and understand the concept of sadomachochism, Walter is confused and frustrated by Erika’s request, and leaves the house in disgust.

At this point, the tables are turned. Erika now becomes the submissive half begging for attention, while Walter turns into the angry dominant party in full control of the relationship. It seems like the more Walter hates and punishes her, the more she is attracted to him. Perhaps Erika craves for the same intense love/hate dynamics that she has with her mom, in all her other relationships. Maybe that’s the only way she knows how to love.

But who knows, really? There are so many facets to the Erika character that the moment we think we can define her is the same moment we lose grasp of her. I don’t think Erika herself knows what she really wants, judging from the ending of the film. After a series of missed opportunities and ermmm…shall we say ‘blown chances’, Walter finally fulfills Erika’s letter request right in front of her mother’s room. And what we see as the consequence of the sickening act is a mixture of shock, sadness and pain, not of contentment.

Hit me around the face…No! Wait! maybe not the face!

The final nail to the coffin is delivered right at the end, when Walter turns up late with his family members and gives Erika a casual greeting, as if nothing had happened the night before. Filled with emotions, Erika takes out a knife, stabs herself in the chest, and walks out of the recital hall…

I think the director, Michael Haneke, has done a fine balancing act of showing us just enough, and teasing our imagination with what’s been left out. Needless to say, Isabelle Huppert deserves the Best Actress award she received, for putting on such a convincing performance to bring this complex, emotionally damaged character to life. Highly recommended, especially for frustrated piano students…

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About The Author

As a child, Topo Sanchez filled his little head with the great mysteries of UFOs, Bigfoots and bearded women as bedtime stories. His first revelation came about while watching El Topo, when he realized that two freaks became normal if they combined. So he figured if three combined, they would be superheroes (hence the birth of SCUM). His first words to his mom were 'Klaatu Barada Nikto!'

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