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THE PIANO TEACHER 

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(c)  2009 M.Dante / Black Dahlia Creative

Set in contemporary Vienna amidst the dichotomy of the city’s core of tradition and  the coming of age into cultural decay,  The Piano Teacher is a painfully disturbing, yet mesmerizing romance based on Elfriede Jalinek’s 1983 Nobel Prize winning autobiographical novel of the same name. The French film (with English subtitles) stars Isabelle Huppert as the piano teacher Erika Kohut who offers master classes at the Vienna conservatory, Annie Giradot as her brutally doting Mother, and Benoit Magimel as Walter Klemmer, the handsome, yet arrogant student in pursuit of his austere teacher. Directed by Michael Haneke, The Piano Teacher won - amidst great controversy - the prestigious Grand Prize at the 2001 Cannes Festival.  It is truly brutal to bear to the end, yet it so skillfully executed, it must be viewed through conclusion.  Huppert’s role in this film is one of the most brutally raw, painfully post modern romantic, masochistic roles ever seen on screen, and truly lends itself to the history of masochism as pathology and not just a superficial kink; hers is an illness hard to explain, yet understood once seen. For those that have followed her since, say LuLu or Ceremonie, it will be as much of a challenge to see her here as it is for her student, Walter, to realize she is sick beyond that which love can heal; in this romantic attempt masochism extends itself into a true state of paraesthesia into the abnormal.

In order to completely embrace this story, you must have appreciation for the specifics in which the high-brow regards their culture – the perfection which must be met in order to carry on the tradition of the masters. Yes! There truly is a subliminal seduction and sadness to, say, Shoenburg or Schubert. Erika Kohut was trained from the on-set to be a master, yet she was a shy hair short of the necessary discipline, despite all her mother could do for her to prepare her for that role. As a result she wound up – not a master concert pianist, but rather – a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. Every day is a painful and permanent reminder of her failure as she enters deep into middle age, living with her mother, unmarried, and desperately alone except for her relationship with the romance she envisions each day with “the masters” and her love of hard core pornography and genital self-mutilation. The music interludes between the dialog as the conservatory students practice for an up coming recital. The beautiful sound of the piano being manipulated to perform the most difficult of pieces by young talented hands, as the aging teacher criticizes and condemns at each and every stroke, is a constant reminder of the ugliness which lays beyond the surface, waiting to perform to perfection;  Erika is about to lead all into a brutal challenge for love - for true passion.

 

Erika lives with her mother. The two exist within an Oedipal relationship we  often do not touch upon in American cinema. Erika’s father, years before, had been sent to the Steinhoff asylum, where he eventually died, completely broken, entirely insane. Erika’s gender identity would be deeply damaged by this process, by her much too insular relationship with her mother and her deeply psycho-sexual relationship with the compositions of Schubert,  a love which would become her point of self destruction in the form of a most handsome young student named Walter Klemmer.  At the start of their relationship, Ericka tells Walter of the "twilight" of Schubert's work, a labyrinth of mind and soul she understands because of her father.

Erika’s mother, for all that she in many ways dislikes her daughter, revels in their, a relationship which is destroyed by the young man who pursues Erika with a narcissistic, vibrant force that leads all to despair. The novel is chilling and thought provoking in its most obvious pain, all the while contrasts the romance of traditional classical music with the decay of modern Vienna as show through its pornographic black market underground and chilling neon teasers. Erika is damaged by her need for perfection;  by her need to feel the pain she perceives as  a gift  from the classical masters of tradition and music; by her father’s journey into insane asylum;  her mother’s relentless adoration which dictates her every moment and breathe. Erika receives pleasure only in the crisp, precise emotion within the music of Schubert and the self-mutilation of her vagina with sharp razors which cut the membranes of her idle womanhood with ease, bleeding free her pain in release that substitutes love or orgasm. She sneaks out in the afternoons and evenings to some of the sickest portals of sexual aberration available in modern day Vienna through the new population of Turks who make their money with hard core pornography and live sex feed. Erika secretly enjoys sniffing semen-soaked tissues at the peep shows and watching multi-layered screen of  people engaging in degrading, empty sexual intercourse.

Walter on the other hand is young, ambitious, intelligent, talented, and viciously athletic – he breathes life from each day  – and sets out to conquer every challenge thrown his way. His youthful naivete and arrogance are completely unprepared for the reality of possibilities with his unique and potentially lovely teacher, Erika. Yet she is not lovely. She is obscene. She is perverse. She is a creation of the class of past and present culture in the condition of the city of present day Vienna. There is a secret hidden inside of her which is very, very ugly.  After many beautiful pieces of music carrying us to the point of no return, it becomes a sick menage a trios of power exchange, yet in a way very different than we would want to explore. The film climaxes into such brutality and despair that the viewer is left unprepared by cliche for the conclusion;  we usually know where these moments are going to lead.

 

In a pivotal and  revealing scene, Walter follows Erika home from an evening class, aroused from the prelude to an exchange held in the bathroom of the Conservatory. He is filled with the need to love her.  He wants to consume her with his passion.  Each time he goes to kiss her, Erika asks if he read the letter she gave to him.  Since writing this letter, she too is aroused.  She wears her red hair down and wears red lip stick. She is soft spoken as they sit in her room with the furniture covering the door to keep out her mother.  She is humble as says to Walter that he will give the orders now.  Tell her how to dress.  What to do.  No longer barking orders.  No longer voicing sharp notes of condemnation.  Now she is the one to be condemned.  Walter finally stops attempting to seduce her with sweet kisses and reads the letter.  His expression as cold as her words as Ericka's mother paces frantically in the main quarters of the flat. " ..... Next take off the blindfold, please, and sit on my face, and punch me in the stomach to force me to stick my tongue up your ass." Each section of the letter new and sour notes to his ears, new ideas in the landscape of his desire and a very dangerous spark of desire. As she pulls a shoe box out from under the bed with her sexual paraphernalia, he can only respond with disgusted sadness. "You are sick." Walter says quietly, "you need treatment."  He leaves, though he does not say good-bye.

 

Later, though, they continue to interact despite the obvious toxicity of the liaison.“You want to give everyone your illness, don’t you?” Walter viciously seethes at Ericka once he understood her better. Watching her with disgust as writhed on the ground, vomiting  visceral fluids, sickened by her need for him. Walter’s potential to embody the perfection of love destroyed by the darkness of her character, which would now darken his character also despite his disinterest in accommodating her masochistic desires. He winds up beating her outside of her fantasy to settle his anger at his love being – in his eyes – mocked. Jelinek clarifies with a slightly surreal tone that ~ Klemmer, the tragic hero, who is far too young for this role (while Erika is actually too old to be the innocent victim if his attentions) runs his ringers of the mute notes in the score. ~

The metronome pacing of their interaction is off beat by more than a moment. They both are out of sync with the time of their meeting, out of sync with the cultural dynamics of the society outside of their studies and rehearsals and recitals – the role plays of tradition are no longer relevant in the reality of their present society. They are all out of sync, yet so perfect in their timing of each note from each traditional piece studied. They seduce each other through music of the masters, yet have nothing in common to share except their roles in despair; another disturbing dance with death.  Do we even need to ask where is the point of blur between a fantasy and rape;  love and passion; desire and need; exploration and illness or crime?

In NY Times film critic Stephen Holden’s 2002 review of the film Holden shares the point of courtship that turns dark: "Erika insists Walter study and follow to the letter a long and detailed set of instructions in which he is to subject her to bondage, pain and humiliation. Ideally, these rituals should be acted out in a situation where her mother overhears, but is powerless to intervene."  It is horrible.  Jelinek clearly and eloquently describes the emotion of the  novel, “Pain itself is merely a consequence of the desire for pleasure, the desire to destroy, to annihilate; in its supreme form, pain is a variety of pleasure.”  It is simply defined as the accepted pathology of contemporary Viennese romance.  

 

Isabelle Huppert’s interview on the theatrical release runs as a pleasant and intriguing diatribe, with no questions asked, simply Huppert sitting discussing the film and her role as the cold, disturbed, yet amazingly talented Erika Kohut. Erika is confusing to audiences. She holds such great passion at her finger tips, yet she is so cold and so cruel and desiring such sick sexual perversions.  Huppert enlightens us to slightly different and more dynamic points of view in her continuous monologue on the story line of the conversion to film: " The great issue the movie raises is love and the difference between love and seduction. That is all that the movie is about. About control and loss of control. About love and seduction and the difference between love and seduction. / [Erika] has a high ideal of what love should be. Like in a novel from the 18th cty. / Strange and attractive combination of something very contemporary – insight into sexual and emotional relationships sexuality -- and also this little fragrance of an old novel. The kind of feelings she wants to feel and go through does not exist anymore. Feelings don’t exist anymore. Novels. Greek tragedy had these feelings. / Music is the metaphor for love in the film. Power exchange at piano recitals. Schubert. / Classical story structure warped in its contemporary delivery --- Foucault-esque. / She has no way of sharing her love with a man. She is mad!"

 

Stephen Holden’s review of the film eloquently describes how, "Erika is so immersed in the world of art that she imagines that the transcendent paradox of great Romantic music -- it maintains magisterial control even while losing its mind – applies to life as well as art".

In the film, at the concert hall the evening of the recital, after the brutal demise of fantasy, Ericka finally succumbs to her hereditary insanity and plunges a knife into her chest amidst the public arena she once ruled.  It is truly shocking to the viewer, forced to play a most sadistic voyeur, just as in Cronenburg's M Butterfly  with its deathly public conclusion to a most humiliating affair.  However in M. Butterfly it was potentially more expected within the confines of prison than in the sterile, bright walls of the public hall.  It is fair to say that The Piano Teacher, though not a romantic film, is truly a love story where - as Bataille warned -  each player transcends the limits of where they began at  the start of their relationship to the point of no return.