Irish Film Institute -Piano Teacher, The

Piano Teacher, The

Director: Michael Haneke

One of the most interesting and challenging of European filmmakers, Austrian director Michael Haneke seems at last to be receiving the kind of attention he deserves. In part this recognition has to do with a move into French production, which began with the superb Code Unknown (also showing in this programme, see under ‘Rep’), a complex rumination on communication and its limitations in our media-dominated world. His new film is also French, and won three major awards at Cannes earlier this year (the Grand Prix de Jury as well as best actor and actress), but in many respect it harks back to the director’s more confrontational Austrian films such as Funny Games.
The Piano Teacher is an adaptation of a controversial novel by the Austrian author and dramatist Elfriede Jalinek. The central figure, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), is a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. Now in her late thirties and living a hermetic, love-hate existence with a tyrannical mother (Annie Giradot), in which there is no room for men, her sex life has been reduced to voyeurism and masochistic diversions. That is, until Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), one of her young pupils, decides to seduce her.
Educated to be an artist in an atmosphere of the strictest discipline, Erika can only derive pleasure from suffering and punishment, which she seeks to dictate meticulously to the initially ordinary young man that is Klemmer. At first repelled by Erika’s demands, Klemmer eventually comes to recognise the sadist within himself.
As one would expect of the director of Funny Games, Haneke doesn’t spare his audience when it comes to portraying Erika’s perverse and neurotic behaviour. Her relationship with the student is so painfully twisted that it might seem implausible were it not for Haneke’s rigorous style and Isabelle Huppert’s controlled and courageous performance. Haneke’s targets here are not only the porn movie itself, but also the terrible repression that can be engendered by a misplaced devotion to high-art values as represented here by some beautiful classical music. Despite the visceral impact of many of its scenes, the film is ultimately as compassionate as it is intelligent.
France/Austria, 2001. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 130 min.

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