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The Piano Teacher / La Pianiste
Kino International
Official Site
Director: Michael Haneke
Producers: Michael Katz, Yvon Crenn
Written by: Michael Haneke, based on the novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, BenoÓt Magimel, Annie Girardot, Anna Sigalevitch, Susanne Lothar, Udo Samel 

Rating: out of 5

The Piano Teacher is in the spirit of such venerable sadomasochistic classics as Belle Du Jour, Last Tango I n Paris, In The Realm Of The Senses, The Night Porter, and both Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Erotic props in such films can include anything from sticks of butter to broken glass, but however shocking the devices, the themes are reliably weighty: human suffering, alienation, gender trouble.

Welcome to the world of art-porn where the lighting is tasteful, the music is often classical, and there is more social commentary than you can shake a stick at to accompany the kinky voyeurism you crave. Rest assured that these are not hardcore films made for pathetic men in rumpled raincoats, but rather, serious films made for more discerning perverts. We may be in the gutter, but itís in an upscale neighborhood. 

Given such two-faced attitudes, in which a taste for the sensational is excused by the reassurance that such films are intellectually important, art-porn often treads a fine line between the genuinely moving and the laughably absurd, which can leave a disturbing aftertaste. But the truth is that once the soft-core porn and intellectual pretensions get audiences into theater seats, movies like The Piano Teacher can still do what any other effective movie from any other genre can doó make us question what it means to be human. This can work only if the film and the audience are willing to take some emotional risks. Does The Piano Teacher measure up as art-porn? 

Erika Kohut ( Huppert ), a brilliant music teacher, still lives at home with her domineering mother ( Girardot ). Erika, who has no real life of her own, finds comfort on the sly in solitary sexual acts. She frequents peepshows where she sniffs used tissues left behind by previously satisfied customers. She sneaks into drive-ins, not to see the movies, but to spy on couples fucking in the backseats of cars. Like The Piano Teacherís target audience, she likes to watch. The film is appropriately set in Vienna, the music capital of Europe, the birthplace of decadence, and Freudís hometown. 

Her activities may seem grotesque, but they are essentially harmless, until Erika becomes more extreme, elegantly quoting Schubert on madness and ďthe twilight of the mindĒ in one scene and cutting her genitals with a razorblade in the next. Then she turns her violence on others, jealously filling one of her gifted studentís coat pockets with broken glass in order to mutilate her hands. 

When Walther ( Magimel ), a beautiful, chivalrous young man, hears Erika play Schubert at a recital, he falls in love with her and she is fascinated by him. In the great tradition of art-porn romance, he doesnít realize who she really is or what heís gotten himself into. During their first sexual encounter, Walther begs Erika for warmth, intimacy, and straight vanilla sex. She responds by startling him with her desire to control the action like a film director (ďPut your penis awayÖ Now, take it out again! No penetration! Wait for my instructions!Ē). Later she confesses that what she really wants is to be tied up and beaten while her mother is locked in a nearby room! Poor Walther, heís such a nice guy, he just wants to love and be loved in return. But this is not Moulin Rouge, itís more like 9 1/2 Weeks and when Walther tries, out of frustration or love or both, to fulfill Erikaís desires, disaster ensues.  

Why are there only two ways to have sex with somebody in The Piano Teacheró the ďnormalĒ romantic way or the sick, ďtransgressiveĒ way? And why does the film make Walther look merely troubled, while Erika is downright psychotic, as if thatís the inevitable destination of dabblers in deviance? Great art-porn appeals to our stereotypical notions of kinky behavior not just by titillating us, but by playing with our disgust, challenging us by making us uncomfortable, forcing us to go one step further and question the nature of what we think is deviant and why. Movies donít have to be warm and fuzzy, but whatís wrong with creating some good old-fashioned empathy? 

We donít have to agree with Erika or even understand her, but we donít have to dehumanize her either. The film gives us a way to excuse Walther because he acts out of understandable frustration and desire. But what about Erika? The Piano Teacher punishes its title character and effectively stops us from questioning our reactions to her or our definitions of deviance by making her a monster. As a result, the movie humiliates her, and even worse, perversely appears to fulfill her desire to be beaten up by doing so. Does it question what she wants or give her what she wants? This isnít cutting-edge commentary on sex or alienation, itís a common slasher film with highbrow credentials.  

The flipside of this phenomenon is the insistence, which perennially appears during summer blockbuster season, that movies like Mr. Deedsor Scooby Doo are cool because we donít have to think. In fact, itís cool not to think! Just enjoy yourself! Going to The Piano Teacher or to Mr. Deeds are just different sides of the same coin. Whether you go to broaden your intellect or to deny its existence, the result is the same. Letís face it, going to see a movie like The Piano Teacher, which received the benediction of the Cannes Film Festival by winning its top prize, is an invitation to be a more serious film goer, a better person, than if you line up to see Men In Black II, isnít it? If thatís why you show up for this film, youíll get what you deserve. Risque, but never really risky, it is as cynical and heartless, in its way, as any cartoon-colored, cavity-inducing Hollywood product.  

óEllen Whittier


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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