Michael Haneke’s dark drama makes us ask uncomfortable questions while watching uncomfortable scenes.
Michael Haneke is known for making controversial films, I am guessing Funny Games is probably his most known, but The Piano Teacher is fairly common to see on art film lists. As with most Haneke films, there are more questions than answers, and we find ourselves in infuriatingly uncomfortable situations.
We follow Erika (Isabelle Huppert), a talented piano teacher who seems to be put together. She is harsh and demanding of her students, and her colleagues seem uncomfortable around her, but she is good at what she does. Her public presence is almost completely opposite her private one—still living with her mother (Annie Girardot) and sleeping in the same bed as her. The Mother character is abusive, controlling, and has completely repressed Erika’s personality. She is infantilized by her mom, and through years (decades really) of abuse, it seems Erika’s sexual development has also been stunted.
We follow Erika as she visits seedy pornography shops, watch her mutilate her genitalia for pleasure, and all of this is shown to us through a cold and calculated camera. Haneke pulls no punches here, and the repression of Erika manifests itself in increasingly disturbing ways. As she meets a talented young man named Walter (Benoit Magimel) the mutual attraction manifests quickly. What follows is a disturbing and troubling look at sexuality, and highlights the need for liberation, communication, and identity.
I recommend this movie, but it is certainly not for everyone. My discussion will go into the ending below.
Erika chooses to completely divulge her sexual fantasies to Walter in a letter. She shares with him her deepest desires, and he reacts with repulsion. Erika believes herself to be an extreme masochist, she wants to be bound and beaten, and to have all control removed. Her letter ends with a fantasy where he will rape her. Walter insults her, and claims that she is a filthy person unworthy of his affections.
Despite his abuse, she still pursues him and the situation continues to decline. Walter is immature, prone to anger, and abusive towards Erika. Erika is unable to adequately communicate what she actually wants. While her letter does detail her desires, neither of them has a discussion of what this sort of relationship would actually look like. Further, Erika’s ideas have remained in the realm of fantasy and not reality. Her desires (and Walter’s stupidity in not asking for any sort of clarification) make their sexual encounters incredibly violent and degrading. While Erika wants a dominant/subordinate relationship, Walter does not understand what that actually means.
The climax of the film is when a drunk Walter nearly breaks into Erika’s home, attacks her mother, and then rapes Erika while beating her. Once the fantasy becomes reality it becomes painfully clear that this is not what Erika wanted, and the out of control Walter doesn’t have the capacity (and his being drunk does not absolve him of responsibility at all—he has proven to be abusive long before this scene) to pay attention to what is happening. The scene is sickening and brutal. Further, one can almost hear the protest of “but this is what she wanted” and I believe Haneke did this on purpose. Erika is used to abuse and repression (nothing of the assault is reported) and in the end it seems that Walter gets away with his heinous act with no repercussions. What could Erika do? If the letter feel into police hands she would be ignored, her desires for a rough fantasy become a brutal reality, and there is nothing to be done about it.
I know a lot of folks see this as a passionate relationship between two damaged people, but I see it as one damaged person being tricked and abused by a charming (but cruel) individual. Erika may have dark secrets, but it is Walter who is willing to rape her. The cruelty of humanity knows no bounds, and with almost all Haneke films, it is on unblinking display here. A powerful and unforgettable film that is hard to watch, but impossible to ignore. 10/10