I have long had a soft spot for films that are about rigorous, musical education in the conservatories of Vienna, Leipzig or Prague. Hollywood once made many exotic melodramas of this sort, in which the iron will of a teacher or conductor clashes with the maverick visions of hot-blooded, young students.
Occasionally such films go well beyond camp into full-out tragedy. In my favourite example, Frank Borzage's delirious I've Always Loved You (1946), a brilliant female pianist is emotionally traumatised on stage whenever she comes up against the stern but devilishly attractive father-figure conductor whose motto is "there is no woman in music".
This could also be the tag line for Michael Haneke's searing The Piano Teacher. Not for nothing does Haneke describe it as the "parody of a melodrama". In the clinical, highly formalised manner that has become his signature in such films as Benny's Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997), Haneke strips away the romantic lushness of the melodramatic genre to expose a cold, alienated social structure founded on abuse.
While Hollywood dramas of the 1940s and '50s often played up to rather kitschy ideas about the ennobling wonders of High Culture, The Piano Teacher attempts something that few films ever tackle. It is about the psychosexual neuroses underlying, even generating, the intensity of great art and the rituals we build around it. (Paul Morrissey's Beethoven's Nephew, 1987, is another, extremely overlooked and underrated, variation on this theme.)
Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her life as Erika, a piano teacher who may have once been destined for greatness as a performer. When she is not politely terrorising her students or obediently plodding the path laid out for her by genteel, high society, Erika explores a secret world of kinky desires.
The director Douglas Sirk once said of Barbara Stanwyck that her gift was an absolute stillness before the camera. Huppert adopts that immaculate poise, but adds a deeply disquieting element – a slight, nervous tremor, an unshakeable tension arising from the interplay of fierce repression and wild longing.
Since there can be no public release for Erika, she turns her complexes inward. The Piano Teacher coolly details the horrendous, private wounds Erika inflicts on herself, culminating in a pre-concert gesture that few viewers will ever be able to forget.
Haneke, whose work is sometimes dry and schematic, has never cared much for the vulgar sensations of narrative intrigue. But here, adapting Elfriede Jelinek's 1983 novel, he expands his steely control of the medium and its storytelling capacity. Fiction enters the film with the arrival of Walter (Benoît Magimel), a charismatic student fatally besotted with the untouchable Erika. The big question is, what will Erika want from him?
From the point that Erica and Walter actually connect (in a toilet, of course), The Piano Teacher embarks on a relentless demonstration of the ways in which the sexual desires of a man and a woman manage not to coalesce. The poster image used for the film is in fact its least characteristic moment, a kiss.
Beyond that first conventional peck, we are treated to a grim parade of refusals, frustrations, misunderstandings and violations. Haneke engineers an odd and compelling kind of sympathy for Erika. The moment she gives away her haughty, dominating posture for the sake of passion, she loses everything. The more she tries to fit Walter's image of ideal femininity, the weaker and more pathetic she becomes.
The Piano Teacher is an extraordinary study of emotional abuse. At its grimmest, it reminded me of the darkest pronouncements of twentieth century psychoanalysis, such as Freud's theories on the inevitability of debasement and self-abasement in love, or Jacques Lacan's contention that any truly reciprocal sexual relationship between men and women is an impossibility.
Haneke and Jelinek seem to share this fatalism to some degree. But both place it within a social context. Haneke's familiar target is institutionalised behaviour. The Viennese music academy provides a fine metaphor for this, with its rigid discipline and brutally hierarchical rituals.
Jelinek adds to this a severe, hard-line, '70s-style feminism. In these days of hopeful reconciliation on all levels, one does not hear the ugly word 'patriarchy' bandied around much anymore. But for Jelinek, patriarchy is the awful truth, the open wound of the Western world. Erika submits to the 'great masters' of music, all of them male composers, just as she submits to the pretty but brutish Walter.
The author has made clear that, for her, Erika is a sexual maverick, a misfit within patriarchy. She claims for herself erotic behaviour considered masculine, from gazing at hardcore porn to laying down the law about how she wishes to be pleasured. But, at every turn, she encounters social structures and conformist individuals who shun or revile her, with disastrous consequences. (A scene in which Erika indulges her voyeuristic bent at a drive-in is a small masterpiece both of suspense and black comedy.)
But this is a complex film that does not stop at a simple, ringing denunciation of male society. The neuroses that rack Erika go far beyond the frustration of her heroic libido. As one commentator remarks, Jelinek is an "equal opportunity hater". Matriarchy, embodied by Erika's fearsome, unnamed mother (Annie Giradot), is portrayed as every bit as abusive and twisted as patriarchy. And Erika herself is no slouch at dishing out violence (both physical and emotional) to her poor students.
The complexities and paradoxes of The Piano Teacher are contained in the classical music (especially Schubert and Bach) it so generously uses. Allusions to the critical writings of Theodor Adorno pepper the film. Haneke and Jelinek worry over the same issues that Adorno did. Can the sheer, soulful beauty of music remain untainted by the vicious power structures that contain and channel it to social ends? Can great art, despite everything, offer hope, a glimpse of a more humane future?
It would have been too facile to juxtapose beautiful music and horrible world. Jelinek gives this opposition a further twist in the psychosexual significance she accords to Schubert's music. Its majesty, she maintains in a 1998 essay, is in the "abasement" it forces upon the listener who, under the "time-whip of sound" is "estranged forever from himself or herself". If that sounds uncannily like a description of Erika's sexuality, this is surely not accidental. The Piano Teacher invites us to step, at least in our imaginations, into the murky zone between civilisation and perversion.
© Adrian Martin August 2002