The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

[This is a review of the unrated director’s cut. Major spoilers are behind spoiler tags.]

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a professor of piano at a music conservatory in Vienna. She lives with her pushy, hectoring mother (Annie Girardot) who pesters her about the way she spends her money, her clothing choices and what time she gets home.

They have shouting rows that end in physical violence and, though she’s over forty and has her own room, they share a bedroom.

She is cultured (rehearsing with a classical trio in her spare time) and perverted (frequenting porn shops with video booths in the back, where she sniffs the tissues left by men whilst watching pornographic videos.)

One evening at a private recital, she meets a young man, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), who is a university student in engineering, but also a gifted pianist who impresses Kohut with his intellectual precocity.

A few days later young Mr Klemmer interrupts one of the professor’s classes and requests to join her master class only to be coldly informed that he may submit an application like anyone else.

His audition goes brilliantly but she says she doesn’t want to deal with him for reasons not one of her colleagues understands.

Upon returning home we have the infamous genital cutting scene.

After catching one of her students looking at a porn magazine in a newsagents she verbally humiliates him. Professor Kohut is something of a switch.

Her next student is Mr Klemmer who tries to charm her into pulling a sickie after their lesson and go out with him. She is intrigued but doesn’t show it.

After work one evening she goes to a drive-in and, upon seeing a couple having sex in a car, is overcome with the urge to squat beside their vehicle and urinate. Her list of kinks is multiform.

Among her other qualities, Professor Kohut is also jealous of her students and their talent and she indulges her sadistic impulses with no remorse. Immediately after this she has an incredibly sexy D/s-tinged assignation with the besotted Mr Klemmer where she dominates him mentally and sexually. She then gives him a letter with the things he may do to her and tells him she has no feelings.

He follows her home, where her nosey-as-all-hell mother lives and they barricade themselves in her room. He doesn’t want to read a letter. He wants to talk—to just have sex. She wants him read it first. You know, something similar to proper negotiation prior to the kinky stuff.

He reads parts of the letter aloud, which are fantasies she’d like to act out. He doesn’t take it seriously—doesn’t understand it. To prove she’s serious she produces items—small bits of rope and what may be a mask (it’s difficult to tell). It’s rather amazing her mother hasn’t gone through her things and found those.

She reveals she’d had the urge to be beaten for years but she’d waited for him and now she would wear only what he chose.

He isn’t interested. He calls her sick—says she needs treatment. He leaves.

That night her mother is doing her usual Worst Mother on Earth Schtick calling her a whore and generally being awful and the piano teacher tries to sexually assault her saying that she loves her. Her mother calls her mad. This seems like an understated response considering the way they usually row. Clearly, I don’t understand the French. Or Austrians. (It’s set in Austria but they’re speaking French so…)

Kohut goes to talk to Walter at hockey practise and they have another sexual experience then he comes to her house that evening to give her her fantasy—to see if it’s like she imagined. It is not. In a very big way.

Both a sadist and a masochist—and all sorts of other things—the piano teacher knows what she wants and goes for it. I can respect that (here’s to the empowered subs!) even if she’s a horrible person in a general sense. It’s a shame she didn’t go for it with someone whose perversions complemented her own, but that wouldn’t have made for a dramatic film.

The Piano Teacher is about a remarkably repressed woman who—after a lifetime of kinky fantasies—finally meets the person she thinks will help her fulfil them. The obsession is reciprocated but their desires do not mesh.

Michael Haneke’s direction is elegant and understated. Shots are framed beautifully—often symmetrically or intentionally asymmetrically—and he allows his actors to breathe and just sit with their roles when the situation calls for it.

As you’d expect, the music is outstanding, but silence is also used well as a counterpoint.

This is a must-see for the BDSM-set. 5/5

[The Piano Teacher is based on the book of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek, which is on my list to read in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for a review of the book and a comparison of the book and film.]

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