How to make a movie that's both kinky and austere: That is the artistic problem The Piano Teacher solves. It's unlikely that the solutions will be widely adopted, however. The movie is placidly esoteric and singular, its versions of sexuality as straightforward and raw as those of Last Tango in Paris or L'Humanité. The topic, sadomasochism, is probably far less specialized or rare than it's typically portrayed as being, at least in the movies, but its treatment in The Piano Teacher is so direct, chilly and exacting, it seems it is being exhibited--as a specimen, under glass--for the first time.
Erika Kohut is a pianist who teaches at the Vienna Conservatory. She treats her students with lofty contempt, and they are honored by her frosty attentions, even though, we learn, she has never fulfilled her promise as a musician, and probably won't now. She lives with her mother, and though Erika has a separate bedroom, they share a bed. After class she openly haunts porn shops, and when a new student forces himself on her, she boldly reveals a complex set of sadomasochistic fantasies she wants him to help her fulfill.
So unpredictable are the tones of the film it's almost impossible to break it down. From the start it's clear that things are only going to get worse, and even if you steel yourself against it and tell yourself you've seen through it, it's likely the film will still shock you, somehow, at each turn. It tops itself every time, without trying, but its hierarchy of shock is based entirely on mood, not on style or content. Early on there's a scene of self-mutilation--done in an unflinching single take--that is difficult to watch, but once it's over, its lingering effect is a kind of staggering restraint. Later scenes have an absurdist current that is palpably outrageous, since the scenes themselves are so perversely conceived, but it's not offensive, because the scenes are executed with a strangulated elegance, and the director seems to know exactly when to shift into a clinical reticence. The movie shows you what you don't want to see, conveys some non-empathetic understanding of why you don't, then, with little rhetorical posturing, convinces you that there are reasons you must.
The director, an Austrian filmmaker named Michael Haneke, earlier made a film, Funny Games (1997), that ranks among the movies I've hated the most in my filmgoing life, and another, Code Unknown (2001), that I think is one of the great films of the last decade. In Funny Games, we see a middle-class family go off for a weekend in the country. Two well-mannered young men appear and ask if they can use the phone. Soon the men reveal violent propensities, and for the rest of the film we watch them torture and kill the family. Every once in a while one of the men looks into the camera and tells us the violence is happening because of us, and that we are secretly enjoying what we are seeing.
Which we decidedly are not. It's difficult to truly convey the repugnantly visceral impact of the film's contemptible ploys. One long take shows a boy who is bleeding to death in one half of the screen while his helpless mother, screaming in agony, crouches in abject horror in the other half. For minutes on end we are forced to watch this horrible tableau: a puddle of blood oozing slowly from the boy's body, the mother's grievous, tortured cries rising and falling, petering out and then redoubling. Even if one agrees that representations of violence need to be made newly powerful to reveal the true horror of violence and to retain a critical standpoint--a line filmmakers have been trotting out since the late '60s--this coy, baldly manipulative exercise in pseudo-self-reflexive carnage won't do the job.
After that I wasn't well disposed, to put it mildly, to Haneke's next film, Code Unknown. But it is, against all odds, a masterpiece. The film begins with a fracas in a Paris street, and then follows several characters through their separate but interrelated lives, in a series of terse vignettes that are related enigmatically yet lucidly. One of the characters is an actress (played by Juliette Binoche), and the movie has its self-reflexive side in including scenes that turn out to be excerpts from a film she is making. Another character is a woman from Kosovo who is deported to her native country, and scenes from the war zone make clear that the subject of the film is the relation of world violence to ordinary hostilities. The violence of history, the film suggests in its compassionate but implacable analysis, is what produces the everyday violence we all live with, even if we don't live in war zones, or don't think we do.
These three films suggest a filmmaker of great formal control and, despite the remote tones of all three, considerable emotional unevenness. What Haneke really seems interested in is the complicity in violence of those who think they're exempt from it. In Funny Games it's the audience that is supposed to be complicit, but Haneke's treatment of the theme is so flagrant and so unable to recognize its own participation in the sadism it displays that it quickly becomes repulsive. In Code Unknown, the street fracas begins when a kid drops a piece of trash into a beggar's lap and, though she seems indifferent to the insult, another kid demands he apologize to her. As a result of the attention the conflict draws to her, she is deported. The point is that we can't assume our benevolent intentions--even if they really are benevolent, and this kid's motives are finally in question--will always have positive consequences.
It's doubtful that this kid would see, even if he could know, how he has hurt the woman whose honor he says he wants to save. The same theme is treated with great complexity in The Piano Teacher. The title character is clearly responsible for the suffering of others, but she is also deeply and apparently helplessly complicit in her own. The film wants us to see a connection between these levels without asserting it directly; this filmmaker has learned a lot since Funny Games. If Code Unknown shows how a generalized violence in the world connects everything to everything else, The Piano Teacher shows how the same violence drives everything apart. Erika's life is bifurcated into irresolvable halves--the beauties of music and the debasements of sex--with a schizoid displacement as the only avenue from one to the other. Structurally the movie flirts with an Electra complex as the root of Erika's fetishism, but emotionally it never gives that explanation a minute's credence. The scene that suggests this cause, showing Erika and her mother (played by the great Annie Girardot) in bed together, is poised between sick comedy and excruciating tragedy. The scene is so unreadable tonally, it may leave you gasping in shock.
Shock is not a particularly exalted aesthetic category, but it is clearly Haneke's forte--if ever there were a director who could film Georges Bataille's transgressive classic The Story of the Eye, it's Haneke--and this movie might be closer to the creepiness of Funny Games if not for the presence of Isabelle Huppert as Erika. There's never a moment when her seemingly blank face isn't registering the traces of many scattered emotions at once, each one limpidly clear, but all of them taken together making it impossible to tell, at any second, what this woman is thinking. What made her perfect for Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary also makes her perfect for this part, and she's probably the only actress alive who could do it, who could play this part with everything she's got, and still seem at one remove from it, as if she were analyzing it as well as acting it. The performance is a marvel, and in large part because of it, The Piano Teacher, though by no means on the level of Code Unknown, remains a startling and serious film, audacious in every sense of that word.