Someone, who I can’t remember but I’m sure is much smarter than me, once said that you shouldn’t write about a film you’ve only seen once. Of course this isn’t applicable to those reviewers who have to meet a deadline on Friday night. Nor is it necessary to watch Billy Madison twice to understand the subtle nuances of Adam Sandler’s comedic genius, but it doesn‘t hurt to watch it multiple times. When discussing the films of Michael Haneke, however, it is evident that a single viewing will not suffice. Haneke prides himself on asking questions and withholding answers, if he had any at all. Following in that tradition, The Piano Teacher, adapted from a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, follows a sexually repressed woman who struggles with relationships of any kind, especially those of a sexual nature.
The first thing I noticed as I watched The Piano Teacher was that I was surprisingly ignorant on what modern French culture looked like. Try as might, I couldn’t tell what era the film was set in. About 15 minutes into the film, I realized that was by design. Haneke immerses the audience in the antiquated and outdated world of Erika. The audience experiences, as Erika has for the last forty years, an over-bearing mother who tries to shut out any hope and ambition that is not related to playing the piano. Only when Erika enters the mall did it become apparent that the film was set in the modern era. Images go from timeless interior design and architecture to jarring modern day consumerism. If that initial shock weren’t enough, Erika walks into a video store and the audience is confronted by pornographic images. For a moment the natural inclination is to be slightly aroused by a quiet woman with a hidden sexual nature, but we quickly learn that her sexual nature is abnormal.
Upon entering the video store, Erika goes to one of the masturbation booths and smells the left over ejaculate of male patrons. The effect on the audience is something like having the toilet flushed while being in the shower. I knew that the water would get hotter, and it did. A short while later we see Erika cut her genitalia, an image that is always difficult to watch, even when the actual act is blocked from our vision. It becomes clear that Erika will not allow herself to feel sexual pleasure. She has given her life, everything she has, to the piano. She will suffer for the piano, mutilate herself for the piano, even commit evil acts for the piano. Knowing that the piano is the only thing that she lives for, she sabotages her star pupil by hiding glass in her jacket. This act of malice compels Walter to confront Erika in the girl’s bathroom, where the two embrace before Erika commands him to stop.
At this point in the film I asked myself, “Do people like this really exist?” I think that’s an important question to ask when watching Haneke’s films. Of the three that I’ve seen, each film explores the darker regions of the human psyche. The next logical question to ask yourself is, “I don’t know anyone like that, do I?” And we assure ourselves that everyone we know, including ourselves, is outside of these human characteristics. But we keep watching the film, and the reason is that we know that somewhere a person like this does exist and somewhere inside of us the capacity to emulate such a character exists. As evil and maladjusted as Erika’s character is, we are rooting for her. She is mean, bitter and crazy, and we can’t help but feel for her. So when Walter and Erika finally make contact in the bathroom, we are hoping that a normal love affair ensues. We are given anything but that.
We soon learn that Erika’s sexual desires haven been mutated by years of repression and informed by negative reinforcement. Instead of pleasure, she craves pain. She writes a letter to Walter, detailing her sexual desires, that disgusts him. He rejects her and she continues to throw herself at him, but that fails and she insults him again by vomiting after trying to perform fellatio. The film ends with Walter “doing her a favor.” He comes over in the middle of the night, locks her mother in the room and beats Erika before having violent sex with her. Walter fulfills her fantasy, but it doesn’t live up to her expectations. The next day she tries to confront him, but he ignores her. She stabs herself and walks into the night.
Erika is a coward. Her life is controlled by fear. Fear of her mother, fear of failing, fear of giving herself to love. Erika is scared to love because she is scared of rejection. Walter’s actions are inexcusable, but they do answer a question that Erika wanted and needed answering. To me, her final act of cowardice is to stab herself. After all that she went through and all that she could have learned, she decided on the easy way out. Of course we don’t know if she actually died, but did we really expect Haneke to tell us that much?
The Piano Teacher was superbly acted and well directed. As with any Haneke film, I’m never quite sure of…anything, but in the end I have a lot of questions. Who could ask for anything more?