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Bitter Symphony: The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 May 2002

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke

Based on the novel by: Elfried Jelinek

Original title: La pianiste

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel

Austria/France/Germany 2001

131 mins

Elfriede Jelinek’s bilious novel, on which fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s eponymous film is based, dissects the twisted relationship between a rigid piano teacher in her mid-30s, Erika, and her overbearing, controlling mother. Having been shaped, moulded and deformed to fit with her mother’s wishes and expectations since her birth, Erika is like a pressure cooker of repressed emotions and has developed an entirely perverted conception of human bonds. Where another writer might have seen Erika as a victim, Jelinek’s uncompromising vision presents both mother and daughter as the symptoms of a rotten society – one that harbours dark secrets under a carefully constructed mask of cultural gentility. Relationships are dehumanised and the spectacularly bitter characters of the novel – Erika and her mother, but also Erika’s younger lover – see others as objects to be used to satiate their own needs.

Although no one could describe Haneke as a soft-hearted director, there is more human warmth, or at least a poignant sense of human suffering, in his version of the story than in the original novel. Even though it is desperately wrong and utterly dysfunctional, there is an undeniable form of love between Erika and her mother, and between Erika and her lover. The focus of the film is more intimate, and Haneke seems at least as interested in probing the unfathomable pain and cruelty of misdirected, mishandled, misshaped love as he is in connecting it to a morally bankrupt society.

Below we present an edited extract from Catherine Wheatley’s Michael Haneke’s Cinema, in which she explores the melodramatic and reflexive elements of The Piano Teacher. Michael Haneke’s Cinema has been shortlisted for the 2010 And/or Book Awards, the UK’s leading prizes for books published in the fields of photography and the moving image. A winner from each category will share a prize fund of £10,000. They will be announced during an awards ceremony at the BFI Southbank, London, on Thursday 29 April. FOr more information, go to the And/or Book Awards website. Virginie Sélavy

Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher tells the story of Professor Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. She is cold, brilliant, demanding, and, we learn in the film’s opening scene, she lives at home with her elderly mother (Annie Girardot). When Erika embarks on a relationship with a young student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), it transpires that her glacial persona masks a tormented sado-masochist, who agrees to an affair with Walter on the condition that the only ‘sex’ they ever have consists of a series of macabre rituals prescripted by Erika.

The film’s plot bears little obvious resemblance to the classic Hollywood melodramatic narratives. But it would be perfectly possible, if a little misleading, to describe the film as ‘the story of a repressed woman in her 30s who meets a handsome stranger and embarks upon an affair which will change her world’ – a description that could just as easily be applied to All that Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948).

The Piano Teacher draws on what we might call a ‘traditional’ conceit of the woman’s film – the inevitability of the heroine’s desires as disappointed – in order to align our emotional responses with Erika’s. Although Haneke’s style is very remote – eschewing point of view shots altogether – we witness only events at which Erika is present; we see Walter, her mother, her pupils, only when she is with them. In what is almost a reiteration of suspense convention, the audience is moreover aware of the nature of Erika’s sexual desires long before Walter is, and so awaits her discovery of his reaction, rather than his discovery of her secret. In this way, the spectator is encouraged to become emotionally involved with the narrative, as the scopophilic drive is prompted by the film’s generic qualities, and the spectator waits to find out what will happen to the character around whom the film’s paradigm scenario revolves.

Haneke moreover draws upon and updates classic melodramatic iconography: Erika’s emotions are represented by her surrounding environment, giving rise to a highly stylised mise en scène. But whereas in the films of Douglas Sirk, colour and camerawork were intended, as he claimed, to reflect the emotional turmoil of his characters, Haneke on the other hand uses lack of colour to point towards the disaffection that he sees as characterising modern bourgeois society and to portray the dynamics of modern alienation. While Sirk uses deep-focus lenses to lend a deliberate harshness to objects, Haneke switches between long shots and close-ups to depict a dialectic between alienation and claustrophobia. Similarly, Haneke’s lighting, rather than bathing the heroine in a soft-focus halo and casting the antagonist in shadows, is stark: natural lighting lending the bleak colours of his sets and characters a cold air. The stillness of his film, almost stagnant in its lack of movement, is the exact opposite of the Sirkian technique of only cutting away to movement, to indicate the whirligig of emotion his characters are on. Haneke’s is an aesthetic of clinical precision. Shots are filmed, for the main part, from a fixed point of view, the camera’s only movement a restricted and restrictive pan. For the majority of the film, Erika is inside: the flat she shares with her mother, the conservatory, the homes of her fellow musicians. When she does venture outside this constrictive world (and even when outside, she is still always inside: a shopping centre, an ice rink, a cinema), she ventures into another world, where her sexual self can be unleashed. The focus on interiors reflects Erika’s feeling of claustrophobia, and represents the emotional walls she has built around herself.

Melodrama is thus reduced to a formal and narrative schema, which notionally draws us into the narrative, but which does not develop in the same way as classical genre film does. As played by Isabelle Huppert, Erika becomes the focal point of the spectator’s emotional involvement with the film. This involvement is not straightforward cinematic identification: the film’s modernist aesthetic keeps spectators at a critical distance from the narrative events. The characterisation of Erika is extremely alienating to an audience, which might find it hard to see itself reflected in the cold, closed, sado-masochistic and even repellent figure of a woman who mutilates herself and others, visits peep shows and spies on copulating couples.

What’s more, psychological explanation is either refused, or made so explicit as to merit little comment. The director’s incorporation of scenes such as Erika’s attempt to engage in sexual relations with her mother is so heavily laden with psychoanalytical overtones that no reading is necessary: such that an article such as John Champagne’s ‘Undoing Oedipus: Feminism and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher‘ (Bright Lights Film Journal), becomes an exercise in cataloguing, rather than decoding, the film’s Freudian elements. In this way the film becomes resistant to academic readings which seek a ‘deeper’, metaphorical meaning, rather than focusing on the individual’s response to what is represented on screen.

But we are also distanced from the narrative by Haneke’s deployment of reflexive devices which function as an explicit critique of cine-televisual perception. Throughout the film the cinematic medium – and the process of watching – is foregrounded. The opening scene is bathed in the light of the flickering television and set to the soundtrack of its constant drone: in fact, when Erika and her mother are in their flat, the television is almost constantly on, its invasion into their homes total and unwavering. A later scene sees Erika spy on a copulating couple at a drive-in movie. This scene, originally set in Vienna’s Prater Park in Jelinek’s novel, constitutes the sole change in setting that Haneke makes to the original novel, and it is crucial to turning the audience’s gaze back on itself.

More remarkable still is a scene towards the beginning of the film in which Erika visits a pornographic film viewing booth. Early in the film, we see Erika aggressively enter the space of a porn arcade. She goes into a video booth, whereupon there follows a seven-second shot of a split-screen monitor showing four separate image tracks: each a clip from a generic hardcore porn film. The film cuts back to Erika as she selects an image, then back to the selected porn film on the monitor. The pornographic image track recurs on the cinematic screen twice more, as the film continues to intercut between the diegetic screen and Erika watching it. The camera then lingers on Erika as she reaches into a waste-paper basket and pulls from it the tissues used by a previous occupant to wipe up his ejaculate. She inhales the tissue deeply while watching the film, her face impassive, her very reaction an inversion of the excesses of masturbation.

The use of films-within-films is a recurring device within Haneke’s work. Here, it serves a number of purposes in addition to foregrounding Erika’s pursuit of passive pleasure. First and foremost, the scene creates a mise en abyme of the spectator’s situation, directly foregrounding the scopophilic urge.

For Haneke’s film has not only been compared to the melodramatic genre, but it can also be seen as drawing on some generic conventions, if not of pornography then certainly of the contemporary genre of ‘post-porn’ – films that ‘take pornography out of its traditional context and rework its stock images and scenarios’ (Barbara Creed, Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality, 2003). Yet while the film’s sexual themes ostensibly align it with the sexually explicit art film, visually The Piano Teacher relentlessly confines the sexual act to the off-screen space. The intra-diegetic images show pornography in its most raw and basic form: both pornography as a ‘norm’, and pornography separated from any artistic pretension. Its inclusion thus serves to underline the deviations that Haneke makes from these norms. In the course of the film, the spectator witnesses three narrative instances of intercourse, but in each case the sexual act either occurs in the off-screen space or is obscured within the frame. The pornography booth scene thus also serves to remind us what is implicit in Haneke’s film. These images act almost as visual aids, to be recalled whenever the spectator is prompted to imagine what it is that lies outside the cinematic frame – to consider not with what we have watched, but with what we might have expected, or even wanted, to watch.

Catherine Wheatley

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