To me, playing the piano exults in a powerful sexual impulse and several scenes from different movies run through my mind when I think of delicate, yet forceful hands voluptuously caressing the ivory keys- Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath and her mute passion, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)'s voice speaking of Amadeus's heavenly music, Gary Oldman's expression in Immortal Beloved, Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving passionately competing in a piano duel and the list goes on. The same thing with food- in my mind, there is something very sexual about the eating process -biting, chewing, licking or smelling- probably related to the pleasure we take from this daily habit. Is it that cooks and artists emanate a sense of luring sexual joy or are we all captive to our senses and own insanity?
The Piano Teacher is indeed musical- a journey through Schumann's, Schubert's or Bach's solo piano creations played by skillful hands- yet it is also an intimately unpleasant insight into the masochistic mind of Erika Kohut. She -Isabelle Huppert- is a self-disciplined piano teacher, living and sharing her own bed with an overly possessive mother -Annie Girardot- who controls every minute of her adult life. Erika is stiff, serious, sexually repressed, envious, sadistic, duplicitous; yet there is something in her posture, childlike figure, big eyes, sharp tongue and passion for Schubert and Schuman that draws the interest and affection of a handsome engineer, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). The young man is highly appreciative of Erika's musical talent and enrols in one of her classes to further his piano knowledge. Open about his feelings, he attempts to seduce her in the conservatory's bathroom, where, much to his surprise, Erika won't have sex with him. At least, not the kind of conventional sex he is hoping for. Instead, she writes down a list of kinky, sadomasochistic desires, fetishes and twisted sexual interests. Walter is disgusted, sexually frustrated, forced to refrain his impulses and reconsider his feelings, which leads him to extreme gestures.
Aware that he is the opposite of her -attractive, communicative, young and funny- and visibly frustrated by her student's lack of talent, Erika acts upon her violent impulses and causes Anne, the student Walter is charmingly trying to help overcome emotions, to maim her hand by putting broken glass in her coat pocket. She then watches the girl bleed without remorse or any other visible emotion. She seems tough to the bone, affectionless and desperate to be in control, yet when Walter gives her the treatment she's been asking for, she is shocked at it.
The sick relationship she has with her freaky mother who is constantly trying to prevent Erika from having sex and thus leaving her, reminded me of the strange relationship between Nina and her controlling mother, Erica- a fated name- in Black Swan. Mothers and daughters build one another beautifully, only to carefully shatter each other's life.
In Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, which won three awards at Cannes 2001 (best actress, actor and film), Isabelle Huppert is outstanding. Her impeccable rigour and lack of emotion make her coldness shine and it is remarkable how she manages to deprive herself of any chance to happiness by indulging herself into her own twisted sexuality. Walter fails to be the sexual match she has been searching for and only exacerbates her dark side, leading her to self-infliction or worse. Benoit Magimel's interest for an older teacher made me think of The Reader, only he is not an immature, innocent adolescent at the molding hands of an adult woman. He is a confident, open, sexually active man who knows what he wants, takes what he gets and moves on.
The open ending leaves room to interpretations, with Erika running out of the concert hall. Has she ruined her teaching career by not finding the courage to pull herself together and perform or has she put the knife into Walter so as to punish him for their violent sex encounter and his derisive response to her special needs? After all, this is a Michael Haneke movie where the process is more valuable and rewarding than the outcome. Despite the lack of explicit sex scenes, this is a bold movie about certain taboo, delicate issues such as sexual repression and control, the thin line between art and life, social norms or sexual deviance. It is about a woman who has taken her professional life to absolute dedication only to throw her personal life into darkness. I hold a peculiar fascination for artists- whether they are cooks, piano players, writers or painters- who are voluptuous beings capable of gracefully walking the line between good and evil.