The Piano Teacher (2001)
The film is based on Elfried Jelinek’s semi-autobiographical novel Die Klavierspielerin. The Austrian writer and feministcaused a sensation regarding certain acceptable literary conventions when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.
Isabelle Huppert plays the hard-nosed, almost militaristic Viennese piano instructor, Erika Kohut, who leads an extreme double life. Huppert does a phenomenal job of embodying the complexity and intricacies of Kohut and her various perversions, a feat none of the other actors in the film quite measure up to with their characters. The film won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes in 2001, amongst numerous other awards.
As a relationship develops between Erika and one of her students, Walter Klemmer’s (Benoît Magimel), the viewer gets the impression that for the first time in Erika’s life someone truly challenges her and is able to see past her defenses. Erika resists Walter’s advances, nevertheless, her seemingly impervious façade starts to splinter. Simultaneously, Erika has infected Walter’s usual graceful ease and cool composure. In the climactic scene, he bangs on the door of the apartment she shares with her overbearing mother. He appears out of breath, incensed, desperate and highly (very out of character for him) aggressive. A violent struggle ensues.
Neither Erika’s nor Walter’s past is given any great detail in the film. This forces the viewer to focus on their lives in the present, as everything else can only be presumption, projection or fantasy. There are no labels readily available and no diagnostic. Where do the main characters go from here? This question too, is left largely open-ended. The film confronts the viewer with the notion that good and evil are also contrived categories. In real life, the classifications we arrange as human beings transgress one another in sometimes violent and ambiguous fornication.
Henneke’s style of filmmaking is much closer to the variability and unpredictability present in real life, and further, the struggle that life is. It resists the very contrived and prescripted world that film is so often reduced to, where every decision is generally accounted for by someone, and every action is planned and systematized. Perhaps through these techniques the director is in fact resisting his own all-controlling character, self-reflexively. In establishing empathy for Erika’s struggle, Hanneke contributes to universalizing something traditionally treated as peripheral, thereby challenging the viewer to accept responsibility for their own obsessive, often masochistic behavior.
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