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

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