Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/6/04 w/ Additional Edits.
One of France’s most gifted and premier actresses, Isabelle Huppert is an actress whose versatility and fearlessness has won her awards and acclaim from peers worldwide. Since her breakthrough in the 1977 film La Dentelliere (The Lacemaker) where a year later, she won her first Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Violette Noziere, Huppert has been an actress that has played many type of film roles with great directors that included Jean-Luc Godard and notably, Claude Charbol whose been her frequent collaborator. Despite being a known figure in Europe and the world, Huppert struggled with gaining fame in the U.S. where she appeared in the notorious 1980 film Heaven’s Gate. Though she would do two more American films including Hal Hartley’s Amateur in 1994, Huppert remained in France. In 2001, Huppert would prove herself once again in playing a troubled piano teacher in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher).
Directed by Michael Haneke that he wrote based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, La Pianiste is a harrowing, intense sexual drama about a gifted piano teacher in Vienna, whose combative relationship with her mother takes a toll on her as she lashes out on her students. Then a young, brash student comes to her who is intrigued by her cold demeanor only to learn about her broken view on love. Playing the title role of Erika Kohut is Huppert in a role that isn’t just demanding but also an eerie, frustrating view on character study. Also starring Benoit Magimel and Annie Girardot, La Pianiste is an ominous, scary film of sadomasochism and dominance through the mind of a woman on the verge of collapse.
For the 40-something Erika Kohut, her devotion to teach students in a Vienna music conservatory about the joy of music has been a frustrating one. Her devotion to the likes of Franz Schubert and the way she plays his music shows her brilliance, even when she wants her students to feel the coldness and pain of what he’s playing, even the same way towards Beethoven. In the daytime, she works to guide her students into playing right but as a harsh taskmaster who uses words in a restrained way to torture them, notably her most demanding student Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch). Whenever she comes home, Erika is forced to endure the criticism and cruelty of her mother (Annie Girardot). Especially one night when Erika returns three hours late where the two fight and Erika is forced to tears after her mother tells her about the hole in her head. At night, Erika is forced to sleep in the same bed with her mother who often asks about her day.
Then one night during a dinner party, Erika meets a young engineering student named Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) who plays Schubert for her. Erika is somewhat intrigued though she’s put off by Walter’s cocky attitude. Then during a class with Anna, Walter comes who wants to join her class. Erika isn’t keen on it since she doesn’t want to be upstaged or seduced by Walter while she’s tending more time to her other students. One day after criticizing another who she saw earlier at a magazine store when he was looking at porno, she becomes more and more sinister towards Anna whose mother (Susanne Lothar) is frustrated at her lack of confidence. Then when Walter does an audition for the music conservatory, he impresses most of the teachers but to Erika’s reluctance, she officially puts him in her class.
Then one night, Erika decides to go to a porno shop where she watches a film and goes through odd moments and then on another night at a drive-in, she watches a couple having sex where her repressed sexual feelings come to place. Unfortunately, her mother doesn’t enjoy the fact that Erika comes home late where one night, she tells Erika that her father, who has been in an asylum for most of her life, has died leaving her more and more desperate. Then one day during a rehearsal with Anna and a baritone singer (Thomas Weinhappel) for an upcoming recital, she finds Anna in a nervous state and her criticism isn’t even helping. Coming to Anna’s aid was Walter that leaves Erika furious where she responds to her cruelness and later, locks herself in a bathroom where Walter finds her and begins to kiss her. She is put off only then to have her sexual feelings to come out more when she asks that he expose himself.
Eventually, the two would have a strange, sadomasochistic relationship where the role of submissive and masochist becomes confusing with Walter’s cocky charm and Erika’s cold, disciplined tone. Then one night when Walter follows her home, he wants to talk to her but Erika isn’t sure, especially in front of her mother where the two would lock themselves in Erika’s room. Erika demands for Walter to read her letter and as he read it, he is repulsed by what she wants from him in their relationship. Erika then becomes more and more desperate as she tries to engage him sexually only to feel sick and the mind games she plays on him finally takes his toll where he would engage her to his own sick ways. The result would force Erika to see the damage she has suffered from herself and from her own mother along with an exploration of her own madness.
The film’s restrained, melancholic tone led by Michael Haneke’s mesmerizing direction gives the film a dramatic tone where the intensity and climax of the film is only used from an emotional standpoint and not in the way it would be approached in American films. The film’s European sense shows how stilted the film’s tone is where there’s no real sense of action, only words. This approach would create a slow pace for the film but its deliberate to examine Erika's behavior. In its screenplay, Haneke really examines the mind of a broken woman who is likely to fall apart as we see her really searching for the one thing she really needed. The film is a very intense drama but without any kind of over-the-top theatrics or any heightened emotions.
Complementing Haneke’s stilted; ominous direction is cinematographer Christian Berger whose evocative look of Vienna in its day, exterior scenes are captured beautifully while in night scenes, interior and exterior, there’s a darkness to it. With Christian Kanter’s wonderful production design detailing a wonderful look to the apartments of Vienna and the conservatory, the film has a wonderful look. Another wonderful element of the film is the music with most of the compositions comes from Franz Schubert with all the piano performances coming from its actors as the music plays to give the idea of what Erika Kohut is thinking. It’s one of the best pieces of music used.
While the film has a nice, small supporting cast with wonderful performances from Udo Samel as Dr. Blonskji, who annoys Erika’s mother with his collection of instruments while Anna Sigalevitch and Susanne Lothar are brilliant in their small roles. Annie Girardot gives a chilling performance as Erika’s mother with her mean, domineering tone as she abuses her daughter mentally and emotionally. Girardot also does well in being a manipulative woman who is trying to make her daughter break down, notably in that first scene, as she wants her to be better than everyone. Benoit Magimel brings an amazing performance as the brash, charming Walter with his vibrant energy that would later develop into something much darker. Magimel, who would win the Best Actor prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival for his performance, brings a complex role of a man who gets into more than he’s bargained for as he tries to see into his own dark side through this broken woman who he felt manipulated by.
The film’s most intriguing performance goes to Isabelle Huppert who brings out her best performance to date. With a restrained, cold presentation, Huppert brings a complex performance as a woman who is mean by day but at night, she is desperate. In her scenes with Girardot, we see Huppert trying to stand up to herself only to be defeated mentally by her mother and being controlled in every way. With Magimel, we see Huppert trying to explore herself sexually while acting in some ways like a child. In that role, Erika Kohut is a woman barely growing out of her childhood who is only damaged more where in the film’s ending, we’re left wondering what just happened and where will she go. Particularly in her sexual exploration where she doesn’t seem to fit in, including to onlookers at the porno shop scene and her behavior towards Walter and mother on a sexual matter is very strange yet there’s sadness to it.
In the 2002 DVD release, Huppert gives an interview where she explains Erika’s behavior and the film itself where she sees that Erika is a woman who just wants to be loved, pure and simple. From watching it, we can see what she wants but then, there comes that sadomasochistic side of her that is impossible for her to love her. Huppert brings in a performance that is powerful and at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, she would win her second Best Actress prize along with several awards internationally.
La Pianiste is a wonderful yet daring film from Michael Haneke with a tour-de-force performance from Isabelle Huppert. While it’s not exactly an S&M film, especially in comparison to the more playful 2002 film Secretary, it’s a film that really looks at sadomasochism in a very dark way. La Pianiste isn’t a film for everyone, especially those unfamiliar with the way Europeans approach drama since the film’s pacing will annoy some along with its questionable ending. Still, it’s a wonderfully harrowing film that relies on character study and emotionally intense melancholia. In the end, La Pianiste succeeds through Haneke’s subtle direction and Huppert’s engaging performance.
Michael Haneke Films: (The Seventh Continent) - (Benny's Video) - (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) - Funny Games (1997) - (Code Unknown) - (Time of the Wolf) - Cache` - Funny Games (2007 film) - The White Ribbon - Amour - Happy End