The Piano Teacher
(La Pianiste)

the piano teacher

The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste)
Made in: France
Language: French
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel
Year: 2001

Synopsis: Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a highly regarded piano instructor at the most prestigious (and snootiest) music conservatory in Paris. Her knowledge of classical composers, especially Schubert, is unparalleled.

At the beginning of every term, scores of musical prodigies audition for a chance to study with her. Erika is a severe disciplinarian who demands perfection, and she is not afraid of berating any student who fails to interpret the music as she sees it. And she is never wrong.

But the piano teacher has a very troubled personal life.

Erika is unmarried, lives with her overbearing mother, and is well on her way to becoming a spinster. At first glance she merely comes across as uptight, but in reality, is EXTREMELY repressed.

She has a good deal of hidden (and unhealthy) sexual obsessions that would make the average frat boy cringe. She frequents sex shops, watches explicit porn, engages in voyeurism, and has a thing for S&M. It's a good thing she doesn't have access to the internet.

Her life implodes when she meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), an affable engineering student (now there's an oxymoron) who is also a surprisingly gifted pianist. When young Klemmer auditions and is accepted as one of her elite private students, Erika's hidden sexual/masochistic tendencies explode into a dark downward spiral in ways that only a French art film can.

The Good: The first half of The Piano Teacher is actually quite intriguing, and there's plenty of beautiful piano music that's effectively used to define Huppert's character.

The styles of classical composers such as Schubert, Schumann, and Beethoven have been carefully researched and their names aren't just thrown around to remind you that music is one of the important themes here.

And although the manifestation of Erika's sexual repression is disturbing, it's also very believable and provides a fascinating turning point in the story. And at the same time, the The Piano Teacher seems poised to offer an effective commentary on the attitudes and self-righteousness of powerful institutions (music conservatories, in this case).

And finally, Isabelle Huppert does an amazing job, and almost makes you forget that you're watching a fictional character and not a real person.

The Bad: The second half of the movie. The sexual aspect of this story becomes really bizarre and twisted, with Michael Haneke intent on using long takes for many of the sex scenes. I lost count of the number of times I said, "enough already, I get the point." You might too.

Many analyses of this film argue that every sick thing that happens in this movie is indeed realistic, such as the masochistic control/submission issues exhibited by the characters.

But after a while it becomes pointless, because the storyline stalls and all we see is more and more disturbing subject matter getting shoved in our faces. For many, if not most viewers, this film will seem like shock value for the sake of being shocking.

And if you think about it, the underlying plot (repressed piano teacher with a secret thing for S&M) isn't all that different from the average porn movie. But with good actors and a few excruciatingly long takes, it magically becomes art!

Who would like this movie: Intelligence officials tasked with interrogating suspects. Threaten to make any captured terrorist watch this movie all the way through, and they will tell you everything. Threaten to make them watch it twice and they will not only reveal Ayman Al-Zawahiri's whereabouts, but whether or not he prefers boxers or briefs.

The Piano Teacher is one of those highly acclaimed art movies that a person curious about international cinema may rent, and by the time he or she is through, will swear never to watch foreign films (or French films) again.

This is definitely not a movie for the average fan, and I believe it was either made mainly for a class of critics who pretty much watch films for a living, or for the sole purpose of torturing film students.

(1 star out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

Netflix, Inc.

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