Melodrama is a genre that often relies on a tacit assumption of female masochism to drive through a plot of tortured romance – just look at the thrill in Joan Fontaine's eyes as she hangs on to the memory of a non-existent love in Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman. More recently, female masochism as a sexual urge rather than a given of society has crossed over our cinema screens to varying effect: Catherine Breillat's Romance took it seriously and succeeded, while in Suspicious River, Lynne Stopkewich became bogged down in psychoanalysis and blew it.
It says less about cinema and more about society that a movie with female masochism at its core is necessarily remarkable, even controversial. Michael Haneke's new film, The Piano Teacher does, and is, just that. But then Haneke (Funny Games, Benny's Video) is a director who seeks to jolt, to discomfit his audience. When The Piano Teacher premiered in Cannes this year, the audience were suitably divided: cackles of derision undermined the applause. Haneke, typically, embraced any and all responses as welcome and evidence that, on his own terms, therefore, the film was a success.
The day after The Piano Teacher hit Cannes, I asked the German director whether that is really all he is after, some kind of response, and he nods: "Yes, first and foremost I want a reaction."
Based on the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek's novel of the same name, The Piano Teacher is a study of the limits and possibilities of – among other similarly enormous subjects – self-control, physical pain, intellectual pleasure, voyeurism and sexual power, all laid before us at a cool distance, clinical objectivity being Haneke's proudest aim.
Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a fortysomething professor of classical piano who lives (and sleeps) with her mother (Annie Girardot). It's a stifling, repressive and out-of-control existence (mother and daughter snipe and physically fight), and Erika attempts to cope by assuming total control over everything else in her life. She's professionally uncompromising and emotionally closed up: "I have no feelings and if I do, they won't defeat my intelligence," she proffers, grimly, in perhaps the key speech of the film.
Keeping her sexuality at arm's length, Erika visits the booths of sex shops and is a ritual self-harmer, slicing her genitals with a razor blade before sitting down to dinner. But when Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a precocious student, becomes infatuated with her, Erika attempts to manipulate his advances into her own masochistic fantasies by giving him a letter detailing what he may do to her. "What is there here for me?" he retorts.
If Erika were male, her obsessive, intellectual control over her sexual needs would be regarded as socially limiting but hardly psychotic; The Piano Teacher fights the patriarchal assumption (shared by Walter) that a woman with a sexual fetish must be at least on the brink of madness, but still finds her unable and ill-equipped to challenge the status quo. In seeking gratification, Erika ends up victim; Walter can't fulfil her written request until he has exerted his own dominance. He is unable to "play" sadist for her pleasure, but capable of rape when she realises her mistake.
"Obviously she's not mad, and that's obviously what's interesting about her," remarks Haneke. "In all my films, I use extremes – be they incidents or behaviour – as a way to show what is typical in our society. It is through these extreme cases that you can best depict normality." But pushed to elucidate further, Haneke withdraws with a smile: "You want an interpretation but I'm not going to give you one. I show that which is shown in the film, and that is my role, your role is to interpret it."
The Piano Teacher is set in the repressive, rarefied air of the upper middle classes. For all Erika's painstaking formative practice at the piano, she is only heard by her students and the bourgeois who hold self-congratulatory recitals in their drawing-rooms. Yet despite this stale, conservative environment, it is through music that Erika can express herself without fear of censure; it is Walter's piano-playing that seduces her into trusting him. But even this form of communication is in jeopardy: repeatedly, characters make taunts about cutting others' hands off ; and in a moment of horrific jealous cruelty, Erika metaphorically does just that to a talented female student.
Haneke concedes the point: "It's true that in all my films, people have problems with communication, not only with others but even with themselves, and that's the opposite situation of one of freedom. But also," he continues, "a main theme in all my films is the sense of offering a means of reflection for the spectator, offering communication to them."
That the film does indeed draw the audience in and mess with their notions of empathy must in large part be attributed to Huppert's flawless performance. She manages to convey the most potentially ridiculous episodes of sexual confusion with an unshakeable seriousness of purpose.
"When I read the script, I thought it was very accessible," she explains, crisply. "I think the movie is very accessible. I'm not saying that it's a fairy tale, but there is something simple, understandable and emotional about it. It's not theoretical, it's a story that touches you emotionally."
"It's about who dominates who. She wants to change the rules of the game – she doesn't want to be dominated and she makes the confusion that to love someone is necessarily to be dominated, so there is a cruelty to the statement 'I love you' in her mind."
Huppert bristles when asked if it was a particularly strenuous part: "It was just work, you know. It was not difficult because the role was clear to me. What is difficult is when you don't understand a character, or when you realise that the director is stupid and bad – that's really difficult."
The difficulty with the film, though, is that it begs a classical feminist reading: that in seeking control of her emotional and sexual life, Erika is less a sexual deviant than a social one, and suffers for her subversion. But Walter's switch from shocked disgust into abuser is too rapid and underdeveloped for all but the most intractable "all men are rapists" position.
Haneke is inured to such criticism, his stated objectivity precluding any rush to explication. Instead, he shrugs, commenting: "When people were interviewed leaving the screening, the response I liked best was someone who said that the film had changed them – they weren't the same person coming out of the film as they were going in. And that's what I want. I love it that people might react in that way, but once the film is finished, it is no longer my film – each viewer sees his own film, and has his own reasons for liking or disliking it – and each is right in their own reaction."
There is something cynical in this refusal to engage in discussions of the meaning of the work, made more acute in his enjoyment in stirring an audience up for the sake of it. No phrase, however, sums this up more clearly than the one Haneke offers rather too off-pat: "I want," he says with a smile, "to rape my spectators into autonomy and into independence."
That this could be seen as Erika's fate only makes the allusion more disturbing.
'The Piano Teacher' opens 9 Nov 2001Reuse content