Film Review: La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) (2001)

“It’s being aware of what it means to lose oneself before being completely abandoned”

There’s not much I can say about La Pianiste that I feel would do it justice. Michael Haneke’s film-making is always fiercely concentrated but matched with Isabelle Huppert’s peerless performance as the emotionally challenging Erika Kohut, something extraordinary happens. This is cinema at its most powerful, confrontational and blisteringly intense, thought-provoking in the extreme in the way in it asks questions about subjugating humanity for the artistic ideal, and whether our most intimate fantasies can ever be shared with those we think we love.

Kohut is a pianist, specialising in Schubert and Schumann and teaching at a Viennese conservatoire. Behind her immaculately composed exterior though is a mass of seething complexity – she still lives with her mother(the late Annie Girardot) despite being in her 40s and shares a tumultuous relationship with her. And sexually repressed, she craves ever more extreme channels of release as we see her visit porn shops, spy on horny teenagers at a drive-in and take razor blades to her most private parts in an attempt to control her emotion.

The arrival of Benoît Magimel’s student into her life offers a new path to her. His interpretation of the music she loves provoke something deep within her (her reaction to his audition is one of Haneke’s greatest achievements in an already superb film) and his cockiness compels her to invite him to share in a connection with her, somewhere between a sex game and a relationship but as he responds in his own way to her demands, Erika soon discovers that the control that she so craves isn’t necessarily still in her hands.

Huppert is pretty much about as good as it gets here. The titanic battle within Erika that manifests itself in such extreme self-denial is writ large across the screen yet almost completely wordlessly; often viewed from behind, Haneke still encourages a rare depth of expression from her that has scarcely been equalled since, Magimel and Girardot offer excellent support too as Haneke excels himself. In the formulaic big-budget world of current cinema, he gives us sex and violence and asks us what is the true cost of commodifying it in the way Hollywood does.

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