At just over two hours long, one might assume that the inner turmoil would take exhausting eye strain to build, but writer/director Michael Haneke (from a novel by Elfriede Jelinek) craftily structures a detailed, deeply disturbing environment in the first five minutes. As Professor Kohut (Huppert) comes home late one night, her mother (Annie Girardot) violently searches her purse to gain some intelligence about what she's up to. A middle-aged woman forced to answer to a parent is enough, but Haneke takes this dysfunction a step further by concentrating on physical interaction. It's far more powerful to see these two women smacking each other than giving one another the stereotypical guilt-ridden lectures other family dramas often fall back on.
This particularly striking opener ends with mother and daughter sharing a bedroom, increasing the already claustrophobic atmosphere with incredibly sparse writing. Through the simple routines of life such as this, Haneke explores murkiness behind uneducated, impulsive motivations. While Kohut secretly visits 25-cent porn machines to satisfy her confused, repressed libido, there's a sense that her compartmentalization can only last so long. If Kohut has been living like this her entire life, what will push her over the edge or set her aright? Considering the extremities of her life situation, only one of those polar results can occur, but Haneke keeps you guessing about any possibilities.
Into Kohut's superficially simple life struts a young, attractive, determined student, Walter (Benoit Magimel). Kohut is a prestigious piano teacher and player, and Walter tries using his natural talent to woo her attention. She slowly relents, but in such unpredictably unhealthy ways, you are left with pity for the pair as they continue to switch roles of pursuer and victim.
The consistently failing attempts to find a common ground between Kohut and Walter are compelling enough to keep you perpetually engaged in questioning what the next scene will reveal, and what will be the consequences. As intellectually enriching as it is, there are moments of overly blatant dialogue saved by impeccable performances from Magimel and Huppert.
The Piano Teacher also utilizes a stream of consciousness pacing that can drag on the attention span, but it's a practice that complements the various unspoken mental maneuverings spinning through Kohut's head. It isn't necessary to see all of her explorations and failures; the narrative would have been just as powerful with fewer scenes. Yet the actions Kohut pushes herself and the reluctant Walter towards never get redundant, so even repeated conversation takes on a new tone.
Beneath all the accidental, innocent, unfortunate manipulation is an underlying current of understanding that common sense and flawed emotion don't always mix. This acceptance allows for the most unfathomable tendencies you might laugh at someone for to have a realistic basis. The Piano Teacher lets nothing be easily solved for its characters... because nothing in life can be swallowed as whole as we'd normally assume.
This impressive film looks good on DVD, and a 20-minute interview with Huppert (in English) elaborates on some of its nuances. Recommended.
Aka La Pianiste.
Fun fact: The French keep pianos in the bathroom.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 5th September 2001
Box Office USA: $0.7M
Distributed by: MK2 Diffusion
Production compaines: Arte, Bavaria Film International, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), Canal+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 59 Rotten: 22
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Michael Haneke
Producer: Veit Heiduschka
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, Annie Girardot as Mutter, Benoît Magimel as Walter Klemmer, Susanne Lothar as Mrs. Schober, Udo Samel as Dr. Blonskij, Anna Sigalevitch as Anna Schober, Cornelia Köndgen as Mme Blonskij, Thomas Weinhappel as Baritone, Georg Friedrich as Man in drive-in, Philipp Heiss as Naprawnik, William Mang as Teacher, Rudolf Melichar as Director, Michael Schottenberg as Teacher, Gabriele Schuchter as Margot, Dieter Berner as Singing teacher