AKA: La Pianiste, The Pianist
Genre: Drama/Psychological Thriller
Year Released: 2001
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Nun (2013 Remake), Perfect Blue, Code Unknown, Amour, She’s Gotta Have It
-I reviewed the TCC re-release by renting a digital version on iTunes.
-The Piano Teacher is based on a novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek.
-This was directed by Michael Haneke who has also directed The White Ribbon, Happy End, and Funny Games.
-Walter Klemmer was played by French actor Benoit Magimel who won the Best Actor Award at Cannes that year. He’s also been in films such as Charlie Says, Little White Lies, and Standing Tall.
-There were interesting effects. Walter Klemmer’s piano parts were dubbed over and there was some opera singing that was performed in German on set, but it was dubbed in French.
This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed something involving the French actress Isabelle Huppert. Some of you may or may not remember, but I covered the 2013 remake of the drama film The Nun (no relation to the horror movie that would come out long after that review). She is certainly a talented actress who also has a knack for being in controversial films. I got this recommended to me by a friend. I felt bad because I couldn’t get to the film right away at first, but they had it to rent online digitally, so I watched it on one of my days off to see what it was about. Will this be a sweet melody of a movie or something more discordant?
The Piano Teacher takes place in Vienna, Austria. There’s a middle-aged piano/music professor at a major conservatory named Erika Kohut. She teaches these college students by day, but away from her cushy teaching job, she delves into sexually deviant things with porno flicks, voyeurism, and some BDSM fantasies. Erika also lives with her mom in a small apartment in the city who constantly gives her a hard time. Things take a change when she meets a prospective student named Walter Klemmer. He’s currently an engineering student at university, but he wants Erika to be his piano teacher at the conservatory. Both of them have the same taste in composers (Schumann and Schubert in particular), and he does have an interest in classical music. Walter clearly has motivations that Erika picked up on, but he still gets admitted as a student in her class regardless of her conflicting feelings. When she’s not teaching Walter, she becomes a harsh taskmaster against the other students even to the point of harming one of her more anxious students in secret before a major concert after said female student briefly sees Walter. Erika becomes infatuated with her student and Walter feels likewise. How will this turn out? Will this affect their normal student/teacher relationship dynamics?
This was an intense watch. I wasn’t too familiar with Haneke’s other works, but he certainly knows how to get attention from the viewer. This filming style is very crisp without coming off as extravagant. Sure, he does spice up the set design during the fancy recital where Erika and Walter first meet, but even then it’s still realistic and makes sense with the atmosphere of the film. I will say the acting was on point. Isabelle Huppert really sells this harsh piano teacher while also having conflicting moments of lust which underlie her character as a whole. Benoit Magimel was also complex in his portrayal of Walter. He starts out like a normal student, but the real him becomes apparent which comes off as frightening, especially in the final act. Both characters certainly have repressed desires which makes them scary people in their own rights. While the score is minimalist, classic music plays a major role in the film. It makes sense since half the scenes take place in or around the conservatory. There is a sense of peace, but it is also a diversion from how sinister some of the people are in this hoity-toity environment.
The Piano Teacher hits some sour notes. For starters, the content is very adult. This isn’t a new thing since I’ve reviewed Ichi the Killer, Battle Royale, Hockney, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, but even I was tested in this film. This is a “hot for teacher/student” movie, so let’s be honest with ourselves. Unlike movies such as The Garden of Words, at least the student is legal, but the relationship gets very disturbing later on once Erika invites Walter to the apartment and reveals her nastiest thoughts to him. I found Erika to have flaws that I couldn’t stand. She was beyond petty to the shy student Anna just because she dared to talk to Walter. I also wondered why she still lives with her mom even though she clearly has enough money to live on her own with her conservatory professor job (if Erika was as old as Isabelle Huppert was at the time, she would be forty-eight years old). The final act will certainly raise eyebrows let alone outright disturb people. The protagonist centered morality of both Erika and Walter (especially the latter) gets way too much for most viewers can take. Other than the content, the film meanders multiple times with needless padding and or extended sex scenes that could’ve been shorter while still having the same intended effect.
Haneke’s renowned film did fall flat for me. I understand what was trying to be done with the subject matter, yet I found the main characters to be more unlikable as the movie went on which made it harder for me to really enjoy The Piano Teacher. The film certainly looks nice and well-shot which I didn’t have a problem with. The music worked well throughout the film regardless if it played a part in Erika’s job and whatnot. The Piano Teacher wasn’t made for me even though I can see why people would herald this film.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-4 points if you like Michael Haneke’s work.
Subtract 1-3 points if you can’t stand sexual content in films.
-Sound design and music is on point
-Very good acting from most of the characters
-Immense protagonist centered morality
-Lack of likable characters
-Sexual content gets way too explicit
Final Score: 5/10 points
Content Warning: The Piano Teacher is absolutely for older audiences only. The language gets very strong, but that’s actually the tamest aspect of the film. Erika is into hardcore porn, BDSM, and she sexually humiliates Walter in a bathroom. She also had a disturbing habit of self-mutilation and her habit gets very bloody multiple times in the film. The sexual content is the biggest issue not just with Erika’s fantasies and vices, but some of her students shop around for nudie mags which are on display and there is even a rape scene in the final act that gets graphic.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Piano Teacher is property of The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from Target is property of The Criterion Collection.