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Directed by
Michael Haneke
130 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Piano Teacher

Synopsis: Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a piano teacher who lives at home with her mother (Annie Girardot). She embarks upon an affair with a male piano student (Benoit Magimel) which shatters the control she hitherto had maintained over her life.

This film took out Best Male and Female Actor awards at Cannes, as well as the Grand Jury Prize, which of course gives it a head start with the critics, who as far as I am aware have been profligate with the superlatives. Certainly in terms of content it has ART written all over it - set against the backdrop of the Vienna State Conservatory of Music, there is of course the ambience of the classical repertoire from Schubert to Schoenberg, then there's angst aplenty with Huppert's self-mutilating piano teacher, the frisson of depravity with her hard core porn and masochistic fantasies, and just to make sure that the middle class intelligentsia are hooked on the artistic merits of the whole shebang, she is able to cite the thoughts of one the darlings of the Cultural Theorists, Theodor Adorno, on music and madness (and film studies students will have no end of opportunity dusting off Kristeva on l'abime and bodily fluids. In other words the critics had as much chance as lambs at a slaughter.

If you're not a member of this cenacle it may very well be that like myself, you'll be dead bored by the antics of Erika and her cocksure toyboy. For there's nothing else happening. There's nutty ol' Maman, but she just gets slapped around a bit every time she leaves her fauteuil to invade her daughter's life. This is Huppert's show and she is unquestionably outstanding. As a wartime abortionist or a killer of her own child, for instance, Huppert has made a speciality of playing unlikeable characters. But as Erika, the sexually-repressed and seriously twisted piano teacher she surpasses all previous efforts. Setting aside cartoonish creations such as the rampaging girls of Baise Moi, you're not likely to see a more believably repugnant, bitter, and desperately lonely and finally, deranged, figure on the screen. Huppert herself is clearly not the girl-next-door type but this is an remarkable exercise in self-abasement (and not one for the squeamish).

Haneke directs this account of what in general terms would be described as a nervous breakdown, with assured sparseness and restraint. The issue I have with it is that for all her neuroses, Erika is a dull, nearly dowdy woman in her mid 40s leading a deadly boring life as a music teacher and this is hardly enough to sustain interest (I was ready to walk out at about half-time but suffered for my art). There is no apparent reason for the infatuation that the macho-ily sporty, good-looking Walter has for her and as his role in the film is entirely constrained by the limits of her neuroses (Best Actor Award aside) he brings nothing to the screen other than a cute smile and his self-consciously foppish blond locks. Annie Girardot as Erica's mother has a steely indomitable presence, clearly identified as the cause of Erica's unhappiness but it is a mummified presence. She has done the damage and now is simply its concierge. And that's the end of the characters. So rating this film is a two-way thing. Yes it's very good if you like that sort of thing but this is not the sort of thing many people will like.




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