Michael Haneke’s films usually do not attract senior citizens, and thus it was a bit surprising that the theater where I saw The Piano Teacher was full of them. The director of Funny Games and Code Unknown has made a habit of depicting — well, sort of — horrific acts of inhumanity that tend to shock and repel audiences. Some, like myself, find his work to be brilliant, insightful comments on cinematic violence, made by suggestion rather than exposition (the torture of the family in Funny Games, for example, occurs entirely off-screen; we know it’s happening by reactions on other characters’ faces and by noises). But a lot of us, certainly understandably, just want to walk out.
Haneke’s films challenge not only media violence, but also unsuccessful satires of media violence, like Oliver Stone’s indulgent, bloodily hedonistic Natural Born Killers. By not showing violent acts, his work removes our enjoyment and our defense mechanisms: hiding our eyes does no good, because the terror is already unseen. We just have to sit there, squirming, as Haneke implicates filmmakers and audiences alike in the cycle of creating and consuming violence.
Surprisingly, no one walked out of The Piano Teacher, which speaks volumes about Haneke’s ability to hold viewers in his grip. What’s so seemingly cruel about his films, and in particular, The Piano Teacher, is how hard it is to tear our gaze from its reflection of ourselves, in full color, in television sharpness, on screen. Not that anyone would want to claim Professor Erika Kohut as a representation of him/herself. Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot), with whom she trades both vicious slaps and loving kisses. During the day, she schools hordes of Austrian youth in the art of piano, but her teaching methods are exercises in sadism. The thick insulation on the door to her classroom looks less like soundproofing and more like padding for an asylum cell; once it slams shut, Kohut torments her students with barbed comments like, “Do you even know where the melody is?” After auditioning for Kohut’s master class, one student exits so distraught that mucus drips, unwiped, from her nose.
Outside the conservatory confines, Kohut acts out her twisted sexual fantasies by going to porn shops and peep shows (where she sniffs used tissues left by male patrons) and spying on couples at the drive-in. Into this mess steps Walter Klemmer (Benont Magimel), a young, handsome engineering student with quite a talent for Schubert (who, Kohut reminds Walter, eventually lost his mind).
Walter’s growing obsession — what he calls “love” — with Kohut signals the beginning of both her ultimate liberation and terrible downfall. Magimel, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes (Huppert won Best Actress; the film, the Grand Jury Prize), imbues his character at first with roguish charm and bizarrely patronizing tenderness, and then, masculine arrogance turned to testosterone-fueled rage. In his penultimate, utterly devastating scene with Kohut, his boyish blond looks have been completely transformed into a seething, furious maelstrom — he has become everything he thought he hated about his lover, minus her ability to say “stop.”
Huppert injects Kohut with precise sadistic tendencies, desperate masochism, and a strange, painful vulnerability that emerges when events progress in a different way than she had planned. Her performance is brilliant. The power plays in which she engages with her mother, Walter, and her students, form the film’s thematic core. When Walter tries to become her lover, he finds himself in an unusual position: she will succumb to his advances if he succumbs to her fantasies. This agreement becomes increasingly layered as she reveals what she wants, to be completely dominated by him, sexually and even in everyday actions, like choosing clothes.
Walter rejects this idea, declaring, “You repulse me,” right after swearing that he does, indeed, love her. But what he finds repulsive is actually her embodiment of his own desires, or more precisely, that she is a woman with such desires. Kohut’s fantasies (which include ties, gags, and other accessories) are certainly disturbing, but are always under control — most importantly, they are always under her control. Not only does she know exactly what she wants, but she has also written her instructions down in a very long letter. She wants to be taken to the brink of reason (like Schubert), then hold on to and exist within that moment. For Kohut, the ultimate rush of power will be to feel herself on the edge of madness and still exert control over the situation.
This is all impossible for Walter to handle. After their first sexual encounter (a thoroughly odd, unfinished grappling in the conservatory bathroom), he insists, “You should know what you can and can’t do to a man. The playing field must be level.” What’s level to Walter, however, is a mutual tenderness, a melting away of Kohut’s steely exterior so that she rests, languidly and beautifully, in his loving arms. His idea of equality is really Kohut’s being submissive to him, though in a much more traditional way than her sexual games.
Walter’s eventual retaliation against Kohut is so wrong and so shocking because it involves such unchecked violence. Honestly, I was not even sure what I thought of this film until this horrifying sequence when Walter exerts his masculinity and dominance. At this climactic moment, Haneke’s goals in The Piano Teacher become crystal clear — it’s an incredibly compelling depiction of madness and sexual deviancy (as well as their relations to musical obsession), but most importantly an exploration of male-female relationships as they are inexorably linked to dominance and submission. I might not share (or maybe I just don’t want to share) Haneke’s bleak conclusion — that involvement between two people invariably leads to struggles for superiority in one way or another — but his point is both shocking and, in many ways, inevitable.
“You have to admit it. You’re partly responsible,” Walter tells Kohut, “You can’t delve around inside people and then reject them.” At this point, Kohut is curled on the ground, eyes teary, hair mussed, nose bloodied, her dignity and poise eliminated because Walter has taken her by surprise. Not that Kohut has not done some wretched things during the course of the film. But she has bared herself so completely to her young lover, and his betrayal is exacerbated by his refusal of culpability.
In a sense, Walter represents the audience viewing The Piano Teacher. He blames Kohut for awakening his own perversions, just as an audience might blame a filmmaker for showing violence on screen. Yet, just as Walter is so clearly responsible for his own actions, an audience is at least partially responsible for passively consuming violence and continuing to attend movies that contain it. The truth is that Walter enjoys the desires Kohut has stirred in him, and audiences enjoy sensationalism. Haneke is smart enough to point out the symbiotic relationships between Walter and Kohut and between filmmaker and audience, and to eliminate any chance of enjoyment here; after all, we can’t very well enjoy a finger pointed directly at us.
Ultimately, there’s no chance for healing in The Piano Teacher. At the end, we are left with credits rolling in silence, as though closing music would be a possibly enjoyable dinouement. If it’s redemption you want, you must look elsewhere; Kohut’s only saving grace, fittingly, is her ability to hurt herself before anyone else is able to do it. And really, that’s all the power that any of us have. Haneke has created a character who walks the edges of madness and reason, who acts on impulses that are odd and abhorrent, who seems totally foreign to her audience, but remains entirely, terrifyingly, human.