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Piano Teacher, The

French, 2001

Starring: Directed by Michael Haneke
Genre: Non Asian Movie Reviews

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot

131 minutes

Reviewed by Vance Aandahl

Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 5.5

G-Max, Frosty, and I went to the Cheese Artist to see Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, 
which won the grand prize and the prizes for best actress and best actor at Cannes in 2001. I know that many people despise French language films, and that even reading about them can make such individuals nauseous, but this time I implore everyone in this group to be open-minded. The Piano Teacher is an outstanding film. Besides, it’s not set in France, it’s set in Austria. And the subject is anything but dull: sadomasochism.

In porn and erotica, sadomasochism is nearly always depicted in a halo of lust, as though it were just another tasty item on the sexual menu for freewheeling folks with lusty libidos. Haneke depicts it realistically as a pathological condition, an affliction. In Erika Kohut, a brilliant piano teacher at a conservatory of music in Vienna (played with cold exactness by Isabelle Huppert), we see the truth: sadomasochism is a compulsion, not a choice, and it’s not much fun for the folks who have it.

Half a dozen scenes in The Piano Teacher made me tense up, and one made me flinch, something I haven’t done in a theater for years. I won’t spoil the movie for you by revealing any of the specifics. The plot, dialogue, and acting are uniformly realistic and believable. Erika’s infatuated student Walter is well played by Benoit Magimel, and her domineering mother is equally well played by Annie Girardot.

Haneke’s choice of camera angles is effective, and so too are the visual contrasts he creates, for example, the contrast between the clean white walls of the conservatory and the dark squalor of a jack-off cubicle at a porn arcade. And his editing is intelligent; the cuts from one shot to the next are perfectly timed and frequently dramatic. Intelligent – that’s the key word. Haneke’s treatment of classical music and his depiction of how Erika and her students talk about it is genuinely intelligent, not the bogus cheese you typically get in Hollywood movies. And one of the best aspects of The Piano Teacher is its soundtrack; Haneke uses background music sparingly, and some of the movie’s most powerful moments are presented in absolute silence, but he also allows us to hear several extended piano performances by Erika and her students, and these extended performances aren’t just beautiful in and of themselves, they also serve to develop and complicate our understanding of the characters. When she’s sitting motionless, listening to one of her students perform, with her mouth frozen in an expressionless neutral position, using only slight changes in her eyes, Isabelle Huppert can out-act 99% of the actresses in the world.

The Piano Teacher earns a 5.5. I’d give it a 6 if it weren’t for some doubts I have concerning the plausibility of Walter’s motivations.