Piano Teacher

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Movie Review by EDF

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot

Director: Michael Haneke

Usually when a movie wins the Grand Prix de Jury at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, there follows some controversy with the movie in question. Last year’s DANCER IN THE DARK starring Bjork was definitely no exception. This year’s winner, THE PIANO TEACHER, also won Best Actress and Best Actor as well for Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel.

Adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, we follow part of Erika Kohut’s life (Isabelle Huppert), a woman in her late thirties who teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory. While very dedicated to her love of classical music, she has little else in her life to distract her. She gives her students a hard time if they attempt any of Schubert’s compositions. She feels that their interpretation will not reproduce the emotional content of Schubert and Erika does little to encourage the development of her students. For most of the movie, she comes across as cold and unemotional. Part of the reason for this is that she still lives with her mother (Annie Girardot), a strict Catholic who destroys Erika’s more revealing dresses whenever Erika turns up late from her classes. She is forever giving Erika advice on how to live her life, like she was still a little girl. Maybe she is scared that Erika will find a man and leave her all alone.

For Erika to explore her sexuality, she turns into a voyeur, attending peep shows and spying on couples in the back seat at drive in movies. She does not seem to be too concerned whenever she is found out. Then Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), ten years younger than she, spots her at a piano recital and introduces himself as a “Professor Of Low Voltage”, meaning that he loves the piano. Walter promptly joins her classes hoping to seduce her, but the only obstacle is Erika herself, who does not want him in her class but is outvoted by the rest of the school committee.

During the first lesson Walter tells Erika that he likes her and that is why he joined her class. Erika ignores what he has just said and tells Walter to continue the lesson or leave. Walter does not give up making advances on Erika but the more she resists, the more Walter wants her. During one tense scene, she manages to take hold of Walter’s desire for her in such a stern way that Walter has trouble controlling himself, even when she is making unreasonable demands on his person. Walter ends up walking away, invigorated, clicking his heels and jumping for joy. She writes a very long letter to instruct Walter what he must do to her if they are to continue. Walter does not understand why she is making these demands and leaves. Erika realizes that the only relationship she has ever had in her life is the one she has with her mother.

The performances are top class for a movie that relies on the cast to produce believable performances. There is nothing glamorous or romantic about the movie. For the most part, the lack of music highlights the bleak nature of Erika’s life. Concert rehearsals and piano lessons are the only scenes that highlight how much of an escape music is for Erika.

If you want to be entertained, this is not for you. As an interesting tale about a woman’s repressed sexual desire, with a strong cast and able direction from Michael Haneke this deserved at least two of the three awards it won at Cannes.

4 out of 6 stars