Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke (from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot
The Piano Teacher (or La Pianiste in the film’s native French), based on the novel Die Klavierspielerin by the Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, tells the story of Erika Kohut, a highly talented but socially dysfunctional piano teacher approaching middle age. The source of this dysfunction is immediately apparent: the film opens with Erika (Isabelle Huppert) arriving home to be quizzed like a wayward teenager by her God-awful mother (Annie Girardot, revelling in the waspish role). The sexual underbelly of the mother’s concerns emerges when she rifles through Erika’s bag and finds a gaudy frock, which she promptly rips. Here again is the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction at work. Erika responds like a fragile teen, crying and whining in the face of this bullying. Like Frank and Dorothy in Blue Velvet and Bud and Daisy in The Brown Bunny, Erika’s emotional maturity has been stunted by sexual shame. But it’s soon back to what passes for normality in the Kohut household: Erika and her mother—whose name is never given—have made up by the time they sidle into the same double bed. Lying in the dark, the balancing opposite of the mother’s worldview surfaces: she still dreams of her daughter being a concert pianist, hissing that, “no one must surpass you, my girl.”
The action shifts to a montage of Erika’s piano lessons, where she passes withering indictments of her students’ meagre talents. The mother’s propensity for black and white judgements (frock = bad, piano = good) is replicated in Erika’s behaviour (no skill = bad, skill = good). There are no shades of grey, let alone fifty, in the Kohut worldview. The main plot engages when Erika and her mother attend a private piano recital. Erika performs in the first half, intently watched by a young engineering student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). In the recital’s second half Walter demonstrates his own facility with the ivories. While Walter plays, Haneke’s camera locks onto Erika. Isabelle Huppert’s face is perfect for the part: the high eyebrows perpetually arched in disapproval; the tight mouth pursed from the bitterness of life’s fruits; the endless mental machinations; the relentless judgment in her eyes. They all stem from the pressure of staying within the tramlines of society’s sexual covenants.
The handsome, cocksure Walter finds Erika, aloof and talented, instantly appealing. Walter tries to impress her but she dismisses the young upstart. Then it’s back to the humdrum of a lesson with Anna, a snivelling girl played with great devotion by Anna Sigalevitch. After the lesson Anna’s mother accosts Erika, concerned that her daughter may lose her place as the soloist in a forthcoming college recital. Erika makes noncommittal noises. It’s a small moment that shapes much of what’s to come.
The film then veers sharply into sexual territory as the subtext from the opening scene now takes centre stage. Erika visits a convenience store-cum-sex shop (the The Piano Teacher was filmed in Austria). Clearly no stranger to the shop, Erika stares down the male clientele, who are embarrassed and discomfited by her presence. Erika enters a booth and watches some porn; she stares at images of fellatio with the same fixed expression as Walter’s piano recital. Something gives in Erika’s steely façade: her gloved hand recovers a used tissue, the jetsam of a previous occupant, and raises it to her nose; the image is strikingly reminiscent of Frank Booth oxygenating himself in Blue Velvet.
Erika’s face softens and her eyelids, normally so unyielding, flutter. Twenty-five minutes into The Piano Teacher, the audience finds itself in the highly unusual position of watching a semen-sniffing heroine relaxing in the reflected glow of hard porn.
Undeterred by Erika’s rejection, Walter intrudes into her life. He interrupts a rehearsal then applies to join her class. Erika disapproves but the selection board overrules her. Erika goes home, grabs a razor blade and slashes her own genitalia. It may seem an odd reaction, not dissimilar to the slitting of Colin’s throat in The Comfort of Strangers, but it makes sense in terms of sexual shame. Like Bud in The Brown Bunny, any form of male-female relationship for Erika—outside of student and teacher—ultimately reduces to sex; and Erika knows Walter wants more than a musical education. Erika cuts herself both as a punishment for her sexual feelings—a trait repeatedly seen in Sexcatraz—and to physically prevent the sex act.
Like Robert in The Comfort of Srangers, from the behaviour of Erika’s mother it is easy to imagine how Erika’s sexual boundaries formed during childhood. She would have been rewarded every time she played the piano but punished every time she displayed any curiosity towards sex. Over time these two behaviours would have become polarised as ‘good’ and ‘bad’; to earn her mother’s approval (allaying primal survival fears) Erika would have learned to embrace one and reject the other. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich describes it thus: “The conflict that originally takes place between the child’s [sexual] desires and the parent’s suppression of these desires later becomes the conflict between instinct and morality within the person.” This lays the groundwork for the push-pull, simultaneous sexual attraction and repulsion displayed by Dorothy Vallens, Frank Booth, Bud and now Erika Kohut. Reich describes this in terms of growing escalation: “The more he resisted his sexuality, the more imperative his desires became. Hence, his moralistic… inhibitions had to be applied more rigidly.”
But Erika is blind to all this programming. All she knows is the nausea, triggered by shame, which she experiences in any sexually charged situation. Like Albert Spica in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, she is unaware of her own twisted beliefs and instead blames her misery on others. The next time she visits the sex shop she sees one of her male students flicking through a porn magazine. Blind to her own hypocrisy, Erika gives the student a baleful glare before striding off.
The student’s next lesson doesn’t go well. He slumps dejectedly over the piano while Erika rails at him: “It sounds as clear as a muddy windscreen. Probably due to the images lodged in your mind.” Huppert is magnificent in this, the film’s best scene. The student apologises after further invective from Erika. “Why?” she asks, refusing to let him off the hook. “Are you sorry because you’re a pig… or because all women are bitches for making you a pig?” Erika believes at a profound level that she is polluted by her innate sexuality, and the shame of that moral pollution contaminates her every moment.
Into this cauldron steps Walter for his first lesson. He tries to keep it light and cosy, revealing his infatuation with Erika. She will have none of it, mechanically repelling Walter to prevent him crossing her sexual boundaries. But afterwards she follows him to an ice hockey practice. Erika’s eyelids give that tell tale flutter earlier seen in the porn booth.
Her juices stirred, Erika walks into a drive-through cinema. She wanders, seemingly lost among the metal hulks of the cars, peering through their windows until she finds what she’s looking for: a couple having sex. Erika creeps closer, drawn by the sight of the man’s backside thrusting rhythmically into his moaning partner. Erika’s mouth, normally so tight, slackens. As the woman’s cries quicken Erika squats and urinates by the car. It’s the only connection with her own sexuality she can make. Humanity animates Erika’s face as she pees, redeeming the moment; just then the man looks up and sees her. Erika flees into the night and back into the bastion of Sexcatraz.
Then comes a scene some critics have dismissed as incomprehensible. It’s a practice for the college recital. Anna turns up late, her usual sobbing self. Walter, with his light touch, soon has Anna laughing but this exchange doesn’t pass unnoticed. Erika goes to the cloakroom, smashes a glass and puts the shards in Anna’s coat pocket. It’s a moment of pure sexual jealousy; in Erika’s polarised world, in that bat of her eyelids at the hockey rink, she commits sexually to Walter and will brook no rival. In the baleful light of sexual shame the scene makes perfect sense.
After the practice, Anna delves into her coat pocket and screams. Erika and Walter look on as Anna raises her bloodied hand. Erika excuses herself by saying that “the sight of blood makes me ill.” This isn’t just a writer’s trick to transition to the next scene, the pivotal toilet encounter featured on the film’s poster. As already seen in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, those who suffer from sexual shame struggle with all the animal aspects of the human condition: instinct, sexuality, physicality, rats and mice, spiders, blood. The film’s success stems from the accuracy of the underlying novel, its adaptation for the screen and Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of Erika.
As already seen in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, those who suffer from sexual shame struggle with all the animal aspects of the human condition: instinct, sexuality, physicality, rats and mice, spiders, blood.
Walter follows Erika into the clinically white toilet. They kiss, Erika’s arms hanging at her sides, flaccid as limp celery. Like Bud in The Brown Bunny, her shame prevents her from embracing what she desperately longs for. They grope and slide to the cold tile floor. Walter wants a full relationship with Erika, physical and emotional. For Erika, the two are mutually exclusive; she despises herself for wanting the former and feels she doesn’t deserve the latter. The film’s remaining running time centres on how far Walter will go along with Erika’s self-destructive shenanigans to convince her that his love is genuine. He seeks a romantic moment but Erika turns it into a coldly sexual one by unzipping Walter and stroking him. As he approaches climax Erika withdraws, leaving Walter frustrated. Instead she tells him she will write down on paper what he can do to her. Both actions stem from Erika’s shame-driven worldview where sex and love are irreconcilable; she assumes that if she satisfies Walter sexually he will lose interest in her—and then how will she get what she so desperately craves?
At his next lesson Walter receives Erika’s sexually degrading to-do list. He follows Erika home, much to her mother’s disgust. Walter doesn’t believe Erika is serious until she produces a box full of fetish toys. How long she has dreamed of those filthy implements being used on her! “The urge to be beaten has been in me for years,” she confesses as the tears come. Once again the parallels with Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers and Dorothy in Blue Velvet are unmistakable. Huppert’s performance as the slowly disintegrating Erika is superb. Walter storms out in disgust. Erika crawls into her mother’s bed. She is subjected to a barrage of passive-aggressive cant, with sex a constant presence: we reserve our deepest insults for the sexual aspects of those we profess to love the most. Erika bursts into tears again, clings to her mother and reiterates her love. It’s an important moment to remember when assessing the climax of The Piano Teacher.
Despite Erika’s pledge to her mother, she is on the same slippery slope as Harry Black in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Bob Crane in Auto Focus and Stella in Asylum, and—for the moment—equally unable to stop. The next scene sees Erika at the skating rink, where she lures Walter into a storeroom. This time she strokes him to climax. Erika immediately vomits; the sex act feels so illicit it generates a nausea she cannot stomach. Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Bud in The Brown Bunny have also shown this polarity switch immediately after sexual climax. It’s a pattern that consistently accompanies sexual shame.
Erika’s behaviour, incomprehensible except in the light of shame, finally punctures Walter’s Zen-like calmness. He turns up at Erika’s house in the middle of the night, full of sex and fury. Erika’s mother goes to call the police. Walter, not before time, locks her in another room. He quotes Erika’s desire to be hit and then complies. This is Dorothy and Jeffrey in Blue Velvet all over again, except that in The Piano Teacher Erika begs Walter to stop; only by living out her self-punishment fantasy does she finally find a shred of self-worth. His rage expended, Walter forces himself on Erika. She asks him to stop but he cannot, a coiled spring unwinding mechanically until it’s spent. With this joyless exchange his interest in Erika ceases.
The scene’s aftermath, when Erika releases her imprisoned mother, is omitted. This is a misstep; the film’s crucial relationship is not between Erika and Walter but between Erika and her mother. Erika’s response to her mother’s ire would have been instructive; it almost feels like the scene may have been written or even filmed but later deleted. Instead there’s a jarring cut to preparations for the college recital, where Erika herself replaces the injured Anna. There’s a brief encounter between Erika and Walter, inconclusive and unconvincing, with Walter too quickly restored to his cocksure self. Erika excuses herself for a moment. Then, alone in the foyer, she pulls out a knife and stabs herself just above the heart. Erika walks out of the recital and into the night as the closing credits roll.
Like The Brown Bunny, the film’s ending is ambiguous. Unlike Bunny, and despite the fundamental similarity of the two films’ protagonists, The Piano Teacher was the runaway success of the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, winning the awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, the Grand Prize of the Jury and a nomination for the prestigious Golden Palm, independent cinema’s equivalent to a Best Film Oscar. Given an understanding of sexual shame, it is possible to deconstruct the film’s open ending. Erika’s self-injury represents an attack on her mother—who will be publically humiliated by Erika’s non-appearance—and indicates a deep, lifelong resentment against having to play the piano to appear ‘good’.
Often mistaken as a power play between the sexes, The Piano Teacher is actually a portrait of the sexual shame Erika acquired from her mother and her attempted rebellion against it. Although it covers only a narrow period in Erika’s adulthood, the key events that shaped her life occurred during her adolescence. The same is true of every protagonist of every film to date. It is now time to turn the spotlight onto some films showing how sexual covenants form during adolescence to completely shape adult beliefs, behaviours and responses to sex.