May 19, 2015

Runaway Nightmare

I am not really a believer in the whole ‘so bad, it’s good’ designation when it comes to films as I find most Troma films to be completely worthless celluloid turds and I do not exactly have a hard-on for the more or less wholly worthless cinematic work of cross-dressing anti-auteur Ed wood, yet I would be lying if I did not admit there were certain gutter grade works, like the virtual entire oeuvre of Andy Milligan, the stop-motion-animation-based Lovecraftian horror of Equinox (1970), and John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse (1982), that demonstrates that celluloid art can sometimes come in even the most lowly and technically inept of forms. For example, I recently happened upon a little known genre-molesting cult item entitled Runaway Nightmare (1982) directed by Mike Cartel that I expected to be a typical highly disposable trash film dud, but it ultimately proved to be a sort of unsung masterpiece of aesthetically autistic lo-fi celluloid of the superlatively satirical yet equally phantasmagorical kind. Like any respectable cult film, Cartel’s flick has a background history as ludicrously labyrinthine as the film itself as a work that was expected to be shot over a three week period but was ultimately stretched to three years, only to be released without the director’s knowledge in an incomplete form on VHS as one of the first ‘straight-to-video’ films after the distributor subcontracted it to another distributor called All Seasons Video. To add insult to injury and then some, the distributor not only released the work without Cartel’s knowledge, but also spliced in random shot-on-VHS nude scenes in an absurdly conspicuous way worthy of alpha-smut-peddler Lloyd Kaufman. Luckily, in 2014 the original 35mm camera negative received 4K restoration and was released on DVD/Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome with the pointless titty scenes thankfully excised (though the scenes were included with the release as an extra feature). Shot under the Jean Harlow-esque working title Platinum Bombshell, Runaway Nightmare tells the marvelously moronic yet uniquely unpredictable tale of two dullard ‘worm farmers’ living in Death Valley (though the film was actually shot in the Mojave desert) who discover a buried alive blonde bombshell near their farm and then are subsequently kidnapped by a dope-and-occult-addled misandristic feminist cult, only to join said feminist cult and become involved in a total war against the mafia for a suitcase containing precious platinum. Like Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988) meets Werner Schroeter’s Manson-inspired masterpiece Willow Springs (1973) and Rudolf Thome’s kraut counterculture classic Rote Sonne (1970) aka Red Sun as set in an unhinged cinema universe not all that different from the one featured in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) where understated absurdist irony has a sort of highly addictive narcotizing effect on the viewer, Cartel’s undeniably singular piece of strangely charismatic celluloid quirk is one of those oh-so rare films that reminds me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Featuring a dopey duo that are like Abbott and Costello lost in time and high on tainted acid, Runaway Nightmare is a work that should fail hard in every way yet ultimately succeeds on so many bizarre and oftentimes subtextual levels that it makes one question whether auteur Cartel just had a number of happy artistic accidents while directing the film or if he is some sort of filmmaking genius who never made it past his formative years.

Opening with a 180-degree pan of the desert juxtaposed with a discordant yet bizarrely soothing minimalistic synthesizer-driven score, Runaway Nightmare then features a shot of a sign reading “Death Valley Insect Ranch” and then introduces the two main characters. While proud worm farmer Ralph (director Mike Cartel)—an unwittingly goofy fellow who, somewhat unfortunately, sounds like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Nicholas Cage, albeit more autistic—loves desert life and is fully content engaging in mindless target practice all day, his business partner and best friend Jason (Al Valletta) is growing tired of the farm and the arid setting, complaining to his comrade, “Jesus, alls I’m thinking about is getting away from all these insects. I wanna see some human faces again.” Rather magically, after complaining, “I’d like a little adventure…some excitement. I just wish something would happen, anything,” Jason gets exactly what he is looking for after he and Ralph spot some dubious dudes burying a coffin in the desert. Upon digging upon the fairly cheap looking coffin, Ralph and Jason are startled to find a living and breathing yet totally unconscious buxom blonde that bears a striking resemblance to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) era Jennifer Jason Leigh inside with the rather fitting name ‘Fate’ (played by Amsterdam-born Dutch-Indonesian model Seeska Vandenberg) who they decide to bring back to their house. Before the truly odd couple can call the cops and tell them of the curious case of the mystery girl that they dug up in the desert, Ralph and Jason’s ranch home is invaded by an all-female cult of ‘pussy power’ professing beauties with mostly big boobies who do not take too kindly to men, especially those that they believe have kidnapped one of their sisters. While Ralph and Jason insist on their innocence, the girls demand at gunpoint that they come with them, with one aggressively stating, “Move out or get carried out.” Naturally, Ralph and Jason reluctantly oblige the cunty girls of cult while petrified that they may get their balls blown off, or worse. 

When Ralph and Jason arrive at the feminist cult’s dimly lit yet strangely cozy desert compound, they continue to proclaim their innocence and are informed regarding their fate, “Hesperia will decide.” Indeed, the all-girl occult gang is lead by a big butch bitch named Hesperia (Cindy Donlan) and Ralph and Jason are finally introduced to her after the former unwittingly threatens her by stating, “get out of the way unless you want to be hurt” upon attempting to sneak out the front door to ostensibly “water the worms.” Ultimately, the two male prisoners are locked in a cellar when they are not being tortured by the blood-lusting she-bitches of the cult who rather enjoy threatening their much maligned male victims by waving knives at them while saying unintentionally hilarious things like, “I’m into bondage…and discipline” and “You’re gonna go through beautiful screams of pain and passion. You have no idea what you’re going to feel.” Luckily for Ralph and Jason, they are saved from being branded by a sadistic bitch with the fitting name Sadie (Debbie Poropat) by Hesperia who proclaims, “You broke the agreement. We live by the laws.” After defending her actions by absurdly stating “the voice told me to kill” like a convict attempting to dodge murder charges by pleading insanity, Sadie declares to her leader Hesperia, “I want to settle up with a duel” and the two deranged dames proceed to settle their dispute old west style in what is quite possibly the most impotent gun duel in cinema history. While “Sadie is apparently “the best there is with guns,” Hesperia gives her a “trick gun” that causes her head to get blown off during the duel. With queen bitch Sadie dead, things get a little less hectic at the feminist cathouse, with Jason even eventually developing Stockholm syndrome and remarking, “You know, I think I’m really beginning to get used to this place,” but Ralph does not agree, arguing, “You know it’s hard for me to get aroused when I keep seeing my life pass in front of me. Besides, some of those women have some pretty rugged girlfriends.” As the viewer soon finds out, while Jason is a semi-suave lady’s man with a voracious sexual appetite, Ralph is more or less a spiritual eunuch who would probably be a leader in the so-called men’s right movement were he living in contemporary times.

While imprisoned in the cellar of the cathouse, Ralph and Jason are informed by the cult’s token fat girl Clio (Ina Rose Fortman) that, despite the fact that most members of the group have a visceral hatred of men, they have been selected as candidates for membership in the all-girl gang. Indeed, Hesperia and her lethal ladies decided after fiddling with tarot cards that the two weaselly worm farmers might have what it takes to become lowly underlings in her chick cult. While Jason describes the entire ordeal as “one large wet dream” where they have found themselves “involved with a group of sex starved women,” Ralph continues to complain little a beta-bitch, as he refuses to succumb to capture-bonding. Before being made official members of the cult, the two men are forced to take a couple endurance tests, including being sexually defiled by two hyper horny bestial babes who clearly have not felt a purple-head monster inside their venerable monosyllables in a very, very long time. Of course, Ralph and Jason pass the less than trying tests and are told by Hesperia that “you will be with us in body and soul” and that they will receive all the “sacrifices and privileges” of membership. While the two must give all their personal possessions to the group, they will “get a share of all communal profits.” Indeed, aside from being a cult, the group is also involved in organized crime, including arms dealing and weapon transporting, and they want Ralph and Jason to help them exact revenge against a malevolent mafia group called the Syndicate that apparently double-crossed them by stealing a suitcase full of platinum from Fate and burying her in the desert.  Of course, things are much stranger than they seem.

As members of the gang Ralph and Jason are forced to do pointless things like move crates from one place to another for no reason like concentration camp prisoners following the orders of SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Otto Radomski, but it does not take long for the latter to receive carnal benefits, including being involved in various threesomes with different girls from around the house.  Indeed, like any semi-serious cult, so-called ‘free love’ and drugs are a regular occurrence at the cathouse.  Unfortunately, Ralph is not so lucky as the fat girl Clio incessantly mocks him by randomly yelling “bug farmers” and laughing obnoxiously to rub his curious choice of profession is his face, not to mention the fact that a butch bull dyke constantly threatens him by stating things to him like, “I’m gonna waste you” and “I’m gonna cut you up.” Indubitably, the most curious girl around the house is a pale-faced and black-haired Gothic babe named Vampiria (Alexis Alexander) who sometimes acts as a ‘living portrait’ when she is not attempting to scare Ralph by saying threatening things to him like,“Every man I’ve touched has died a violent death.” When a bodaciously bitchy butch babe named Pepper (Cheryl Gamson) attempts to get in Ralph’s pants by staring him directly in the eyes and declaring, “Hey, I’m trying to communicate. I’m into sunshine, awareness, good karma, vibes, and witchcraft. I’d like to mix our blood” and he tells her to go away because he is watching a show on a clearly broken black-and-white TV (!), she becomes so exceedingly enraged that she takes an axe and smashes the television to bits. While Ralph would love nothing more than to escape from the cult and go back to watering his worms, he still proves he is loyal to the girls by getting in a slapstick style brawl at a bar with New Romanticist style pinball machines after Jason saves one of the more big bosomed members of the gang from being harassed by a super sleazy Mestizo-like fellow. Although Ralph has not touched a single member of the gang, that does not stop latent lesbo Pepper from stating to him, “If you don’t stop molesting these girls I’ll see that you suffer before you die.” Indeed, when it comes to women, Ralph is completely and utterly hopeless as demonstrated by the fact that a seductive dame named Torchy (Jody Lee Olhav) licks a large chess piece during a game of chess like it’s a cock and says to him “It’s your move. You can take me,” but he does nothing but stare at her with a somewhat scared expression on his face, as if he has Castration anxiety and is afraid that she might suffer vagina dentata. In fact, Torchy makes another attempt to get Ralph to demonstrate his manhood while she is showering with a couple other girls, but all those gorgeous naked women somehow don’t get the protagonist’s blood going.

The only girl that Ralph demonstrates even the slightest affection towards is Fate, who reveals to him that Hesperia is really a spoiled rich girl and trust fund brat whose followers are nothing but a bunch of badly brainwashed fanatics that she easily manipulates for her own financial gain while pretending to be a spiritual guru of sorts. When Fate asks Ralph to runaway with her after they get revenge against the Syndicate, the protagonist seems somewhat interested but little does he realize that she is a two-faced bitch and psychopathic femme fatale with ugly ulterior motives that involve mass murder and treachery of the most heinous sort. When it finally comes time for the cult to seek revenge against the Syndicate so that they can get their priceless suitcase of platinum back, Hesperia assigns Ralph and Jason the job of being decoys. Ultimately, the cult successfully raids the Syndicate’s warehouse and gets the platinum even though Ralph causes an alarm to go off after botching breaking a window, but it does not take long for the mafia to strike back and attack the girl gang’s headquarters. When the Syndicate raids the cult’s home, a number of girls, including super chubby chick Clio, are killed in a gun battle, but most of the girls manage to escape via helicopter. Since they apparently cannot fit everyone on the helicopter, Jason and Ralph are left behind, with the former evading capture by hiding in a chimney and the latter soon being caught by the guido gangsters.

While in captivity at the Syndicates headquarters, Ralph conveniently finds a time-bomb lying around the building that he sets to go off when he goes under interrogation. When interrogated by the Syndicate’s leader Mr. X (played by the film's art director J. Christopher Senter), Ralph is informed, “You’re already dead…The question is, how early do you want to die?,” so the protagonist stalls until the time-bomb goes off by asking why they double-crossed the cult and he is somewhat startled to hear that it was actually Fate who double-crossed both groups and attempted to flee town by herself with the platinum. Right after Ralph cries “Oh, God” after wrongly assuming the time-bomb failed to detonate on time and Mr. X responds to him by saying, “There is no god. Nothing can save you now,” the explosive goes off and magically the protagonist is the only one that survives the blast. After becoming all discombobulated as a result of the large explosion, Ralph decides to call his prospective ladylove Fate and she informs him that most of the gang members are dead and that she needs to speak to him in private. Ultimately, Fate picks up Ralph in his own van and brags that she has double-crossed “everyone” and that she has “lost count” of how many people she has killed. While Fate predictably shoots Ralph with a powerful weapon that causes him to fly out of the van, he manages to survive because he is wearing a bulletproof vest that Hesperia had given him when the Syndicate raided the cult’s compound. Meanwhile, Fate attempts to open the suitcase full of platinum and is blown up in an extravagant explosion. As it turns out in a cute twist that seems to express the stupidity and lack of literacy of both organized crime groups, the suitcase was actually full of plutonium and not platinum.

When Ralph meets up with Jason and the surviving girls, he is quite happy to learn that his worms are as now as big as hamsters. On top of that, the girls declare him, Mr. Beta Bitch, their new leader, with one of them stating, seductively, “We’ll do anything you tell us to.”  Of course, instead of demanding hot sex, Ralph merely has the girls do odd jobs like getting him cold cans of Coke when he is engaging in target practice outside.  Notably, Ralph also reveals how resentful he is by psychologically torturing the girls that used to torture him by shooting bullets only a couple inches away from their heads.  In the end, Runaway Nightmare seems to come full-circle, with Ralph shooting his rifle from the same rock formation as he did at the beginning of the film, albeit this time he has the added bonus of ruling over a collective of sexy and big bosomed broads who slavishly do whatever he says, but the fun does not last long. Indeed, after Ralph and Jason find two dudes (one of which is played by director Cartel’s father, who also acted as the film's main financier under the pseudonym Eldon Short) dumping a barrel with a label reading “Danger – Nuclear Waste” at the very same place where Fate was buried at the beginning of the film, the film cuts to an epilogue that reveals regarding the characters' fate: “Hesperia lives in Marin County where she publishes a feminist news magazine. Members of a female desert cult were exposed to radiation and had to be quarantined. Side effects of all women included increased sexual appetite. Jason survived and was confined in the same room with the other females. Ralph developed a unique genetic disorder.”  In a second twist ending of sorts that surely demonstrates director Cartel's obsession with screwing with the viewer's expectations, Ralph is depicted transforming into a vampire and breaking free from a straitjacket while being held at a place somewhere in Nevada called the U.S. Government Radiological Research Facility. Of course, one can only hope that Ralph is more of a lady’s man in vampire form as he surely would make for an awfully pathetic bloodsucker if he sucks at seducing ladies.

Of course, it would probably interest certain cinephiles to know that Runaway Nightmare director Mike Cartel comes from a family of carnies and that the famous midway that his father owned, Crafts 20 Big Shows, was featured at the end of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers On A Train (1951), as well as the Godard favorite Some Came Running (1958) starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the Elvis Presley vehicle Roustabout (1964). While Cartel has never directed another film, he is apparently currently working on a documentary on carnivals. Aside from working as a film director, screenwriter, and actor, Cartel has also done stints as a soldier (he’s a Vietnam war veteran who who engaged in combat), reserve officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, owner and editor of a weekly newspaper (The Valley Vantage), and Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, thus making him not only the creator of one of the most patently preternatural motion pictures ever made, but also a filmmaker with one of the strangest and most eclectic employment histories. While Cartel once jokingly complained regarding Runaway Nightmare, “I'm still desperately fighting to make sure that this will not be the film I am remembered for,” it will indubitably be the single thing he will be best remembered for, which is certainly more than most people can say about their lives.  As demonstrated by the fact that he set up a website for the film, it seems that Cartel is finally able to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of his labor some 30+ years after he created the film, thus confirming the old truism that it is ‘better late than never.’

While I sincerely doubt that auteur Cartel was attempting to create anything resembling an experimental or avant-garde film, Runaway Nightmare is—for better or worse—an innately wayward cinematic work that is in a category that is all of its own as a sort of seductively satirical absurdist fever dream that surely makes the most of the deadly delirium that is associated with Death Valley. Undoubtedly, one of the most alluring aspects of the film is its heavy use of chiaroscuro, thus giving the work an absolutely alluring aesthetic that falls somewhere in between classic German expressionist cinema, Werner Schroeter's early high-camp masterpiece Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran, Leslie Megahey’s Sheridan Le Fanu adaptation Schalcken the Painter (1979), and Richard Elfman’s neo-vaudevillian cult classic Forbidden Zone (1980). It should also be noted that Runaway Nightmare is probably one of the most amazingly anti-climatic films ever made, as a cinematic work where anytime the viewer expects to see a salacious sex scene or grisly murder it abruptly cuts to another scene, hence why it was only to the detriment of the flick when it was released on VHS in the 1980s with random added shot-on-video nude scenes. Indeed, it might not make sense to modern viewers who are used to a cocktail of cheap and tasteless sex and violence, but one of the things that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat during Cartel’s film is their ultimately unfulfilled anticipation for unclad mammary glands, visceral mayhem, and ultra bloody murder. Certainly, Runaway Nightmare is one of those rather rare films where it has a totally original atmosphere and tone that can only be properly articulated to a person by actually watching it. In short, Cartel’s micro-budget high-kitsch masterpiece is a film that makes the viewer really contemplate about what the filmmaker was thinking when he was dreaming up such a superlatively strange celluloid beast. After all, Cartel could not look and seem more ordinary and banal if he tried, so one can only wonder how such an inexplicable work sprung from such a seemingly everyday type of fellow. Of course, in its depiction of a cult of killer chicks with big tits who take two goofy guys hostage, Runaway Nightmare seems like it was directed by a kindred spirit of Russ Meyer, albeit with more self-control and imagination. After all, there would not be much ‘meat’ left in a Meyer flick if all the unclad jumbo jugs were taken out, yet one of the greatest strengths of Cartel’s film is that it does not show a single bare nipple.

 Of course, one also cannot forget that Runaway Nightmare is probably the best satire on the rotten fruits of feminism and the so-called women's liberation movement since Paul Morrissey's Women in Revolt (1971).  Indeed, while absurdly goofy and seemingly hardly serious, the film casts the fairer sex in a distinctly dichotomous light where they are both feared yet fetishized, evil yet erotic, brutal yet beautiful, homicidal yet horny, cunning yet careless, and sadistic yet sweet, with protagonist Ralph symbolizing one extreme male perspective on women and his pal Jason symbolizing another.  Naturally, it is probably no coincidence that Jason becomes a total moron after he gives into his carnal cravings while Ralph manages to figure out that the woman who portrayed herself as the biggest victim is ultimately the most evil and predatory of femme fatales as a woman who slaughters her own sisters for financial gain.  In his pathological use of cinematic cock-teasing where he sets up a sexual scenario but never delivers the disrobed naughty bits, director Cartel manages to highlight the tricks of the trade when it comes to hypnotizing and, in turn, cuckolding men in a film that one might best describe as the ultimate work of ‘anti-exploitation’ disguised as pure exploitation trash. If you're looking for the best of psychotronic cinema, you probably cannot do better than Runaway Nightmare, which ultimately alleviates cinematic wackiness to a carefully cultivated art form that people seem to either love or love to hate (I fall into the former group).

-Ty E

May 18, 2015

The Piano Teacher

Over the years, while my appreciation for Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) has waned, my respect for Isabelle Huppert has steadily increased to a degree I would have though unimaginable before, so I decided the other day that there was no time better than now to re-watch La Pianiste (2001) aka The Piano Teacher, which I had somewhat mixed feelings towards when I first watched the film about a decade ago or so. After re-watching the film just the other day, I now realize that I did not originally like Huppert because she is so believable in her portrayal as a fiercely frigid bourgeois bitch that it actually made me develop a dislike for her as a person (which is certainly a good indication of how talented she is as an actress), but after seeing her in a variety of eclectic roles in films directed by master filmmakers like Marco Ferreri’s Storia di Piera (1983) aka The Story of Piera, Werner Schroeter’s Malina (1991) and Deux (2002) aka Two, Benoît Jacquot’s Yukio Mishima adaptation L'École de la chair (1998) aka The School of Flesh, and Claire Denis’ White Material (2009), among various other different works, my opinion has changed drastically. As for Elfriede Jelinek—a Viennese mischling playwright and novelist whose work Die Klavierspielerin (1983) Haneke’s film is adapted from—I find her to be an insufferable bitch whose life and work would surely make for a great case study in Richard von Krafft-Ebing's classic text Psychopathia Sexualis, thus it is intriguing to see Huppert more or less channel her in The Piano Teacher.  Indeed, Jelinek, who is a commie feminist that once petitioned for the release of misogynistic Austrian serial killer/Ulli Lommel lookalike Jack Unterweger (who was released and subsequently went on a murdering spree), based her novel on her own personal experiences as a failed pianist with a deranged mother who pushed her to become a musical wunderkind of sorts. Undoubtedly, after watching The Piano Teacher, which is apparently much tamer than the novel, I can certainly see why Jelinek is so screwed up that when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, she refused to accept the prize in person due to suffering from agoraphobia, social phobia, and related anxiety issues.  Additionally, Jelinek has been married for over thirty years yet strangely she is childless and has never lived with her husband (who lives in Munich).  For better or worse, Haneke’s film features one of the creepiest and most grotesque mother-daughter relationships in cinema history, not to mention the fact that Ms. Huppert has never looked so brazenly bitchy yet simultaneously disturbingly pathetic. While oftentimes described as an ‘erotic thriller’ or ‘dark romance,’ The Piano Teacher is anything but arousing, unless you get off to botched orgasms, middle-aged momma girls mutilating their labia and barfing during blowjobs, and sadomasochistic mother-daughter incest, among various other forms of sad and debasing sexual dysfunction. I have to confess that after my recent viewing of the film, I have more pity than hatred for its source writer because if the film is even marginally accurate in its depiction of Jelinek’s life and psyche then one would be just plain cruel to hate her, even if she has retarded political beliefs and uses her influence as a literary figure to taint her homeland’s reputation on an international level. 

 The Piano Teacher begins with the eponymous quasi-anti-heroine Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert)—a failed piano virtuoso who teaches at the Vienna Conservatory—coming home from a night out and having her exceedingly invasive mother (Annie Girardot of Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead (1969)) grab her bag and self-righteously declare “Magnificent…Exactly as I thought” upon finding a new dress inside. In no time, a bourgeois bitch fight that involves the pulling of hair ensues after Erika’s mother senselessly tears her much cherish new piece of clothing. Practically a minute or two after the fight has ended, things go back to normal for the two discernibly co-dependent dames and they act as if there was never was a fight, with Erika’s mother proclaiming, “That’s how it is…We’re are hot-blooded family,” as if their mutually abusive behavior is normal and completely justifiable.  As hinted throughout the film, Erika’s mother, like many women who have lost their husband, has completely taken over her daughter’s life, turned her into a sort of surrogate spouse, and uses her as both an emotional punch-bag and security blanket. Despite the fact she has her own private room, Erika sleeps in her mother’s bed as if she is her lover/husband, thus hinting at an incestous lesbian relationship that seems all the more confirmed by the fact that neither woman has a lover. A whacked out woman who practically carries around her daughter’s pussy around in her purse, Erika’s mother forced her to devote her entire life to becoming a great pianist and still suffers the delusion that her not-so-little-girl will become famous one day even though she is already in her late-30s and makes her living teaching and performing at lame parities for annoyingly banal wine-sniffers and other upper-middleclass rabble who both women clearly loathe. Indeed, because of her mother’s lifelong control over her, Erika has no life of her own as a barren and assumedly virginal middle-age woman of the rather sexually repressed sort who has nil friends or romantic partners. Needless to say, when a handsome young man comes into her life and will not take no for an answer after her incessant rebuffing of his romantic gestures, Erika’s begins to feel deep passion for one of the first times in her life, but of course things eventually take a nasty turn for the worst in the end that confirm that the protagonist is condemned to a loser life of perennial loneliness and cuckoldry to her similarly miserable mommy. 

 When Erika performs at a party for a pedantic musical instrument collector named Dr. George Blonskij (Udo Samel of Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989) and Martin Walz’s Ralf König adaptation Killer Condom (1996)), she finds herself to be the object of unwanted adoration from the host's handsome 17-year-old nephew Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) and Claude Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil (2003)), who is a rather talented dilettante pianist who rather respects the protagonist’s talents, even if he also has a compulsion to get in her panties. After Erika performs, Walter immediately approaches her and asks, “I hope it’s not too forward of me to kiss the hand that plays such Bach,” but his lips barely touch her skin before she pulls her hand away and asks him in a rather bitchy fashion, “You can stop now. Where do you get such unfashionable enthusiasm?,” to which he enthusiastically replies, “I’m delighted the tradition of recitals lives on. It was practically extinct. The masters die, then their music. People today only ever listen to pop or rock.” Aside from Franz Schubert, Erika’s favorite composer is Robert Schumann who, like her father, ended up in a mental institution. When Erika brings up a quote by kosher commie Adorno about Schumann’s descent into madness and Walter replies, “You talk about things as if they were yours. It’s rare…And I think you know it,” the protagonist defensively replies, “Schubert and Schumann are my favorites, that’s all. Since my father died completely mad in Steinhof asylum, I can talk easily about the twilight of the mind, can’t I?” Unfortunately for both of them, Walter does not take the hint from Erika’s remark that she is not exactly quite right in the head and instead decides he will stop at nothing to sexually ravage her. As a handsome and highly extroverted young mensch of the tall and blond-haired sort, Walter is not used to getting rebuffed and seems to enjoy the challenge of attempting to swoon a woman as frigid, passive-aggressive, and seemingly soulless as Erika, but he really has no clue what he is getting into. 

 While Erika might not have anything resembling a real sex life, she gets manages to get her carnal kicks in a variety of radically repellant and even sometimes horrific ways that include sniffing cum-covered tissues while watching four-screen porno flicks in peepshow booths, mutilating her vagina with a straight razor, and performing particularly perverse exhibitionistic acts like squatting down and urinating while watching young couples have sex in their cars at drive-in movie theaters (notably, a young man catches her doing this while he is making love to his girlfriend and attempts to chase her down while screaming, “Stay there, you cunt” ). Of course, Erika’s foul fetishes indicate that it is less than likely that she will be sexually compatible with a suave gentleman like Walter, who will inevitably discover that his crush is a carnal creep who repels him. Ultimately, Walter decides to put off his studies as an engineer major to try out for the exam for the piano master-class that Erika teaches. While her words and facial expressions certainly say otherwise, it becomes apparent that Erika begins falling for Walter during his exam performance, as his talent and charm arouse her, though she is somewhat turned off by his arrogance. While every single one of her colleagues is impressed with Walter's performance during the exam and vote for his acceptance into the program, Erika complains, “…frankly, I find his histrionics suspicious or even unpleasant” and shocks her co-worker by voting against him. Of course, Walter is accepted into the master-class and during his first private lesson with Erika he confesses that he had no interest in the program and only tried out because he is in love with her, stating to her, “I fought to win your attention. Give me a chance. I know you’re not as indifferent as you pretend.” While Erika threatens to end their session if he does not stop attempting to vie for her affection, the protagonist literally stalks Walter after class and watches him as he plays hockey with a team he belongs to. Indeed, it seems that, as far as sex and romance are concerned, Erika is completely autistic and a hopeless case, as she obviously yearns for love and affection but lacks the capacity to accept and embrace these things.   Indeed, as the daughter of a decidedly deranged and institutionalized daddy and a hateful and highly abusive unhinged monster, Erika only knows emotional negligence and torment and surely has a hard type accepting the fact that a handsome and charming fellow who is young enough to be her son wants to jump her bones.

 In a subplot that was not in the source novel that is meant to emphasize the sick relationship between the protagonist and her mother, Erika teaches a young dorky/Jew-y teenage girl named Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch) who clearly reminds her of herself when she was younger and even has a mom that is just as ruthless as her own in her pursuit to make her daughter a musical wunderkind. While Erika initially seems somewhat empathetic to Anna’s pathetic plight due to their shared love of Schubert and mutual slavery to their malicious megalomaniac mothers, that all completely changes when the protagonist becomes jealous of the sub-homely teen when Walter dares to display kindness to the ugly duckling and comforts her during a rehearsal where she suffers an emotional breakdown due to a bad case of diarrhea. As punishment for wallowing in Walter’s attention, Erika smashes a glass cup and then places the broken pieces in Anna’s coat pocket, thus causing the rather neurotic teen to cut her hand up so bad that she has to temporarily give up playing piano. Ultimately, Walter realizes what Erika has done and why and instead of being disgusted with her behavior, it turns him on as it demonstrates to him that she has affection for him, so he follows her into a women’s bathroom and then forces her to kiss him after putting his head over the bathroom stall. While Erika reciprocates Walter’s passionate kisses, she soon demands that she be in control of the situation by not allowing him to touch her while she jerks him off while making demands like, “Look at me, not your penis.” Needless to say, sexually aroused extrovert Walter finds the entire situation totally intolerable, especially after Erika tells him that she will write him letter describing what she wants him to do to her instead of allowing him to plow her puss right then and there during the heat of the moment. After giving him some less than pleasurable seeming head, Erika refuses to allow Walter to relieve himself by masturbating and instead treats him like a bad little boy. Still, Walter is glad knowing that he will finally get the opportunity to defile Erika and he celebrates by skipping up and down out upon exiting the women’s bathroom like a happy school boy. 

 The next time Walter comes to his lesson, Erika acts as if their recent botched make-out session never happened and spends a good portion of their time berating his piano schools while resentfully mocking his good looks and piano-playing, sadistically stating, “Schubert’s dynamics range from scream to whisper not loud to soft. Anarchy hardly seems your forte. Why not stick to Clementi? Schubert was quite ugly. Did you know? With your looks, nothing can ever hurt you.” When Walter attempts to kiss her, Erika suffers some sort of terrible psychosomatic cough and then hands her ‘beau’ a letter containing the sexual acts she wants him to perform on her. After class, Walter follows Erika back home like a lost puppy and lets her know that he will not take no for an answer, so the protagonist reluctantly brings him in her apartment while her busybody bitch of a mother complains and attempts to ask a bunch of invasive questions. After entering her room and blocking her door with a piece of furniture so that he mother cannot get it, Erika demands that Walter read her letter, which is many pages long, after he attempts to fuck her. Needless to say, when Walter reads the letter and discovers that Erika wants him to, “gag me with some stockings I will have ready. Stuff them in so hard that I'm incapable of making any sound. Next, take off the blindfold, please, and sit down on my face and punch me in the stomach to force me to thrust my tongue in your behind,” he is left speechless and finally asks her, “Is this supposed to be serious? You’re just making fun of me, aren’t you?” Erika replies by simply pulling out a small box from under her bed and pulling out objects from it, including a mask and rope, that more or less amount to a rape kit. Erika is so clueless about the dubious nature of her perversity that she thinks Walter is more concerned with the literary quality of her letter than her sexual derangement, ultimately defending herself in a somewhat absurd manner by stating, “I am a pianist, not a poet. After all, love is built on banal things.” At this point, Erika becomes desperately pathetic, telling Walter that she is willing to be his slave by stating, “For now on, you give the orders,” but the only thing he can say is, “You’re sick. You need treatment.” When Erika requests that Walter hit her, he hatefully responds, “No one would touch your sort, even with gloves on,” throws her letter on the floor, and then adds, “I swear I loved you. You don’t even know what it is. Right now, you repulse me.” After that, Walter says “fuck it” like some lowlife wigger and leaves the apartment. 

 After Walter leaves, Erika reaches an all-time low in terms of her sexual insanity and bestially attempts to ‘rape’ her own mother that same night while they are in bed together, as if she has deluded herself into believing that her mommy is the only one that will possibly fuck her since she was turned down earlier that night. Like with Walter, Erika fills her mother with sense of revulsion and disgust.  Of course, the miserable old woman fails to realize that her daughter’s sexual derangement is largely the result of the way she raised her through her hatred towards men (especially Erika's father) and physical and emotional abuse.  Although it seems somewhat absurd that Erika desperately seeks the attention of her sadistic mother after being rejected by Walter, the protagonist's deep desire to receive love and affection from her abusive progenitor is actually quite typical of socially dysfunctional individuals with romance problem as they oftentimes go back the parents that are directly responsible for their self-destructive behavior and relationship problems.  After her failed attempt to get in her mother’s panties, Erika disturbingly brags like a toddler, “I saw the hairs on your sex,” thus reflecting her infantile sexuality. The next day, Erika creeps Walter out by showing up at one of his hockey matches unannounced and embarrassing him in front of his friends. No longer the perennially callous cunt that everyone knows her as, Erika becomes pathetically desperate and repeatedly declares her love to Walter while trying in vain to get him to screw her in a locker-room closest but he is disgusted by her. Eventually, Walter gives and inserts his cock in her mouth and fucks it like it is a pussy, but Erika cannot handle it for some reason (maybe she is allergic to dick?) and proceeds to vomit all over the place, thus inspiring the teen to tell her, “You know, you really stink? Sorry, you stink so much, no one will ever come close to you. You’d better leave town until you don’t stink so bad. Rinse your mouth more often, not just when my cock makes you puke.” Needless to say, at this point Erika decides to flee the hockey rink and even humorously runs across the ice to get out as soon as she can. 

 Just as she requested in the letter, Walter decides to come by Erika’s apartment late that night to rape her, but the piano teacher ultimately proves she was all talk and too much of a coward to embrace her masochistic tendencies. Indeed, after locking Erika’s blabbering mother in a room, Walter proceeds to slap his lunatic ‘lover’ around while quoting from her letter to reassure her that he is doing everything that she asked him to. Instead of enjoying the slaps and kicks that she so obsessively fantasized, Erika immediately cries and begs Walter to stop, which only infuriates the teen as he cannot understand what he is doing wrong. Ultimately, Walter slowly ‘deflowers’ (the viewer assumes she is still a virgin) Erika while she lies on the floor like she is dead. While Walter even attempts to be gentle, sensitive, and caring with Erika while they ‘make love,’ she maintains a face of abject horror as if she is in a quasi-comatose state as a result of a traumatic experience, like being ganged raped by a group of outlaws bikers. When Walter finally finishes what is quite possibly the most awkward and anti-erotic sex scene in all of cinema history, he borderline threatens Erika to tell anyone about the quasi-rape session by stating, “I’d appreciate it if you tell no one. Anyhow, it’s for your own good. You can’t humiliate a man that way and…it’s not possible.” The next day, Erika sees Walter with his family and friends at a concert hall where she is scheduled to play and he acts as if nothing has happened between them, stating to her while smiling in an exceedingly enthusiastic fashion, “My respects, Professor. I can’t wait to hear you play.” In a darkly hilarious scenario that seems to reflect the protagonist's pathological protective need to hurt herself before anyone else can hurt her worse, Erika reacts to Walter’s remark by making a goofy face of abject disgust and then stabbing herself in the shoulder with a butcher knife when no one is around. Instead of performing, Erika leaves the concert hall alone while blood is seeping through her shirt. 

 As far as I am concerned, Isabelle Huppert and her young co-star Benoît Magimel deserve most of the credit for the potency and intensity of The Piano Teacher, which stands in stark contrast to Michael Haneke’s mostly banal directing techniques, lackluster pacing, sterile shot composition, and overall ‘anti- mise-en-scène’ approach to filmmaking. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Haneke’s ‘glacial’ direction helped to underscore the quality of the acting, which is totally unrivaled as far as repression-based female neurosis is concerned. One can only assume that Haneke belongs to the Jean-Marie Straub school of filmmaking where he considers anything even remotely entertaining to be supposedly ‘fascistic’ (which is the way Straub absurdly described Fassbinder's later films).  Undoubtedly, The Piano Teacher is just one of Haneke's many films where her demonstrates his undying hatred for his own social class in a sort of self-righteous sneering fashion that intentionally seeks to discomfort and disturb the viewer, hence the implementation of humor during rather dark and disgusting scenes.  Of course, somewhat ironically considering the nature of her character, it is only through Huppert and some of the actors performances does the film have any degree of humanity.  Admittedly, I once knew a girl with serious ‘mommy issues’ and she, not unlike Huppert’s character in the film, had such extreme fantasies that she was pen pals with various incarcerated rapist serial killers and even once coerced her boyfriend to break into her house at a random time, beat the shit out of her, and ‘rape’ her. Whether she enjoyed this ‘mock rape’ or not, I am not sure but it was clear to me that this friend’s self-destructive perversity was the direct result of a cold and negligent mother who warped her sense of sexuality at a young age.  Any way, I bring up this friend to illustrate that, at least as far as I am concerned, The Piano Teacher is fairly authentic in terms of its uniquely ugly depiction of the long-term fruits of matriarchal abuse on a woman.

 It should be noted that The Piano Teacher is not the first (and probably not the last) Elfriede Jelinek cinematic adaptation. In fact, I would argue that the rarely-seen made-for-TV work Die Ausgesperrten (1982) aka The Excluded directed Austrian cult auteur Franz Novotny (Exit... But No Panic, Exit II - Transfigured Night), which is not only based on Jelinek's novel Die Ausgesperrten (1980) aka Wonderful, Wonderful Times but also features the novelist in a somewhat humorous cameo role as a school teacher in what would ultimately be her first and last screen performance, is more faithful to the book than Haneke's film. On top of that, Jelinek penned the script for Werner Schroeter's Ingeborg Bachmann adaptation Malina (1991) starring Isabelle Huppert. Of course, I am sure that both Jelinek and Haneke had Huppert in mind for The Piano Teacher after watching Schroeter's film, which also deal with female neurosis and sexual dysfunction, albeit this time depicted from the perspective of a woman with deleterious daddy issues instead of mommy issues. Any way, I have to confess that I now regard The Piano Teacher as one of Haneke's greatest accomplishments and I say that as someone that is disgusted by the idea of a German-language novel being adapted into a French-language film, which was ultimately a small price to pay to have Huppert play the eponymous lead in what is arguably the crowning role of her entire career.

-Ty E