Screening Log #48: The Piano Teacher (2001)

Written by Michael Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, and Annie Girardot




The fact of desire is a strange contradiction. The presence of desire is often romanticized, abstracted into something passionate, but there is implicit in desire an admission of lack or privation; the desiring party openly gestures toward an absence in themselves, articulating, knowingly or not, a sense of incompletion. The more deeply desire is felt, the more strongly lack is reinforced. The presence of a negative space in relation to desire is compounded when the object of desire is obtained. Desire itself is simultaneously negated as fulfilled. In the wake of fulfilled desire the vacuum of its fulfillment can generate a jarringly anxious awareness, a sense of loss and disorientation.

It is this negative aspect of desire that sits in the heart of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. The film follows Erika Kohut, Isabelle Huppert, a piano instructor (naturally) at a prestigious piano conservatory. Kohut is a skilled pianist, accomplished and well-respected, who happens to still live with her mother, Annie Girardot, in a smallish apartment. The mother, tellingly never given a proper name, is a domineering force in Erika’s life, berating her for spending money on clothes, demanding to know where she is at all times, choking the roots of her life, like a vase she has long since outgrown. This relationship reverberates through Erika’s life, manifests in her taciturn demeanor, her stern and cruelly demanding relationship with her students. When an individual feels little ability to determine their lives or extricate themselves from a situation they most often vent this frustrations on those around them. Haneke’s film slowly establishes Kohut’s life, the tension with her mother, their volatile arguments and effusive reconciliations, while revealing details of what she does in the slim hours of her spare time that speaks to a strange internal life.

Erika goes to a sex store and enters a booth and seems impassive as she watches the adult video, at a remove from the scene, not stimulated by it necessarily, but possessed of a sociological curiousness. She goes to a drive-in movie and roams the parking lot, searching for a couple to watch having sex in their car. She masochistically mutilates her genitals in a bathtub with the same sense of detachment as she engages in the rest of her activities. There is a collision between the expected behaviour of someone in her situation as a member of high cultured society, a well-trained and respected pianist, and her alien curiousity and infatuation with sexuality. After a recital Erika is accosted by a young engineer and pianist Walter Klemmer, Benoît Magimel, who becomes fascinated by her skill and cool demeanor. Walter auditions at the conservatory, requesting to be admitted into Kohut’s instruction. This begins a strange sexual relationship between the pair, her detached demeanor and strict control serving to inflame Walter’s desire for her.

The relationship is complicated when Erika gives Walter a letter detailing what she desires of him, sexually, that includes bondage, humiliation, and physical violence. Walter is repulsed by this list of Kohut’s wishes. When Erika’s desires are externalized and made fully available to him, he is deprived of his desire to pursue; the game has ended, and Walter is left only with the natural absence of desire following its fulfillment. Here the dynamic reverses, with Erika pursuing Walter, desperate for his affection, perhaps entirely ignorant to the manner in which relationships, sexual or otherwise, function. Her desperation brings Walter to her apartment where he proceeds to enact the items on Erika’s list, inflicting the same nullification of desire and fantasy on her that her list inflicted on him. Perhaps, being a masochist, this was the ultimate act of masochism on her part, giving Walter the list will the full knowledge that his enacting its contents would fulfill and destroy her desires.

Haneke shoots the film with his usual detached aesthetic and ethical distance. His films’ intentions seem always directed at the audience, looking out from the screen to provoke a reaction. Here his tone and aesthetic seem appropriate to Erika’s own way of regarding the world. As such, his style, which can be intentionally – perhaps even problematically – ambiguous, fits the film well. A subtle critique of the pretensions of high society embedded in a chilly examination of the logical terminal point of desire, the film affords a sense of clinical detachment while reminding the viewer of something covertly universal.

One Response to “Screening Log #48: The Piano Teacher (2001)”
  1. I love, love, love this movie. It’s incredibly haunting, beautiful and ugly all at the same time.

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