Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot, Susanne Lothar, Udo Samel | Directed by: Michael Haneke | Produced by: Veit Heiduschka Written by: Michael Haneke
The sub-titled French film, “The Piano Teacher”, is one of the best movies of the year. Yet, because of its subject matter—masochism, abuse, self-abuse and pornography addiction—I cannot recommend it to viewers of this site. It’s a film about family but it is not a family film. It shows the painful depravity of sin, but it does not point the way out. In fact, the characters are utterly lost.
In “The Piano Teacher”, Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a great might-have-been. A former child prodigy, she now spends her time teaching (or thwarting) young piano students. She lives with her mother, Maman, a former stage-mother of the most pathological kind. Ever conscious of propriety, Maman even comments on Erika’s clothes. So pathological is Maman and so symbiotic their relationship, they even share the same bed. Outwardly, the symbol of culture’s epitome, Erika is a spiritual and emotional mess. She spends her thwarted life with few outlets. Her only joy in life are her frequent ventures to adult book shops where she receives vicarious pleasure from watching porn films and sniffing tissues left from former clients.
Into her life appears, the type we all expect in movies like this: a young vital, handsome, kind sane-appearing Walter (Benoit Magimel) a young man from a privileged and cultured background. If we were watching an American film, we would know that sooner or later, passionate life-loving Walter will free Erika’s repressed soul, love will win out and they will float off into the sunset. The American ideal of the all-healing power of love is not what we get. The French are more honest about the power of neurosis.
When Maman first meets Walter, she declares him a “leech.” Well, he may be. He seems drawn to wounded women. But what is it exactly that draws him to them? That is for the audience to decide. Walter is sweet. But he’s got his own issues, however subtle and well-contained. There is very little disagreement in the psychological world that certain sexual fetishes, perversions and aberrations are influenced by parental abuse, isolation, issues of inferiority. But “The Piano Teacher” seems to be telling us how unsalvageable these lost people can be. In this respect, it is a movie that only shows the lost without any hope of redemption.
In the film, the sexually-unstable person functions well in society. This is believable. They function too well. Remember Jimmy Swaggart? Or for that matter, former President Clinton? People under the sway of sexual addictions can become quite powerful and contribute to society. However, the illness is still a battle.
But there’s something else: Walter is young, well-rounded, a child of privilege. He is a pianist (representative of the soul), a hockey-player (the body), and an engineer (mind). He is younger than she, happier and more vital than she, more involved in life than she. And yet he says that no one has ever affected him in the way she has? (Think of Neil Jordan films like “The Crying Game” and “Mona Lisa”. Think of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”. These poor souls fall in love with people who topple their world.) The power of love and sex is formidable. On one hand, the director (Michael Haneke) might be saying that love is so powerful and so inexplicable, it can bring unlikely people together. But perhaps there’s a chord in Walter that responds to the discordant undertones in Erika? Perhaps we should ask: “How sane is this kid?” Is he attracted to this woman because he wants to help her, to hurt her, or to be hurt by her?
When Walter reads Erika’s list of masochistic demands, he tells her she’s sick and needs treatment. Good advice, but Erika doesn’t give it a second thought. She’s been waiting for years for someone who will slap her, tie her up, and humiliate her. And she feels she has found the guy. Walter is repulsed. But who can free this prisoner from herself? So many people have the idea that art can heal. I’ve never seen art actually heal anyone. And Erika’s art and pain are intertwined. Unfortunately, many pathologies and art go hand in hand. They feed on each other.
The film is problematical because one can never quite figure out any character’s inner purpose. In the end of the film Erika leaves the music hall after having received her dearest wish: the pleasure and grief of emotional rejection and self-abnegation. Walter ends up giving Erika the utter extreme humiliation she’s been longing for all these years. But there’s the rub: one can never tell what’s happening with these two. Is he slapping her because she asked him to? Because she humiliated and hurt him by being so cold and rejecting? Because he has hidden masochistic tendencies within? Because he is repulsed by her? Because he’s trying to show her that a real venture into sadomasochism isn’t as sexually fulfilling as she thinks it will be. (She realizes this in the end.) IF Walter stays with her and demands that he treat her kindly, she will enjoy the masochism of his demands. If he stays and treats her in the way she wishes to be treated, masochism is still involved. And if he leaves her, masochism is involved in his rejection of her. Whatever his choice—even the fact that everything is his choice—pulls Walter into her masochistic pattern. I’ve never seen self-loathing portrayed so well in a movie.
That said, this is one extremely extremely unpleasant film to sit through. Most Christians will leave the theater feeling filthy, as if they had been thrown into a morass of icky slime and ooze. I did feel a sense of hopelessness. Sadly, many people have sexual issues. Even Christians. But only pornographic films and art films cater to these sexually wounded people. As shown in this film, the pornographic films promises Erika fulfillment. But when faced with real sexual violence, she was not fulfilled. Not in the normal way, anyway. I truly believe that Our Lord Jesus can repair anything. And yet, I know several Christians who have battled sexual perversion for years. I cannot say why they have not been freed from their perversion. But I can say that God does give many of them the grace to be celibate and to be strong on a day-to-day basis. So God’s grace is sufficient.
Unfortunately, although this film shows someone who is lost and in need of salvation, this is not a Christian film. Christ is not in the equation. The mind, the souls, the body are on the screen, but not the fullness of the Human Spirit redeemed by Christ. There isn’t even a priest in sight. And so this story of someone who is lost and in need of salvation of soul leaves one with a sad hopelessness. The sadness of the human condition stays with you.