Prisoners' Songs

The Piano Teacher's study in lurid sexual pathology occasions a tour de force by Isabelle Huppert as the title character—a four-alarm lunatic with a heart consecrated to Schubert and a head churning up fantasies to make Leopold Sacher-Masoch blush. There's hardly another actress in movies who could inhabit this Viennese specimen without seeming ludicrous—and there may not be another who would care to.

Smoothly oscillating between the imperious and the abject, dampening her eyes or clouding her vision at will, the preternaturally poised Huppert combines an animal absence of expression with the sudden spasms of a feverish inner life. Of course, it is a calculated performance (one awarded a prize at the last Cannes Film Festival). Michael Haneke, who orchestrates Elfriede Jelinek's supple, sardonic novel with his usual heavy hand, keeps Huppert on-screen for virtually the movie's entire 140 minutes, as well he might.

Most simply put, The Piano Teacher is the tale of a former musical prodigy and her monstrously controlling mother. The women are locked in a relationship so symbiotic that they share the same bed and so oppressive that the fortyish daughter, Professor Erika Kohut, punishes her unruly desires even more severely than she governs her students. The movie is a series of violent shocks, typically administered in confined spaces. Returning home late from lessons, the piano teacher opens the door to confront, yet again, her domineering mother (Annie Girardot, tough and leathery, with a sharp insinuating croak). Erika's purchase of a new dress precipitates a row—not unevocative of Anthony Perkins's quarrels with himself in Psycho—that soon escalates into hair-pulling warfare.

The sudden spasms of a feverish inner life: Huppert in The Piano Teacher
photo: Kino International
The sudden spasms of a feverish inner life: Huppert in The Piano Teacher

Details

The Piano Teacher
Written and directed by Michael Haneke, from the novel by Elfriede Jelinek
Kino International
Cinema Village
Opens March 29

Shot in the Heart
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by Frank Pugliese, from the book by Mikal Gilmore
Film Forum
Through April 9

Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher
Written by David Koepp
Columbia
Opens March 29

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One more gloss on Civilization and Its Discontents, The Piano Teacher parodies the idea of classical music as the ultimate cultural expression—the application of intelligence, technique, and discipline to the sublimation of passion. The cool appraisal with which Erika reduces her pupils to tears is suggestive of the movie's own brisk, opaque surface—until the ice is pulverized by a giddy jolt of hardcore porn that no amount of Schubert can completely assuage. Such is the piano teacher's inner life. Erika not only frequents sordid peep shows (protected in a raincoat and fastidiously wearing gloves) but ecstatically buries her face in the used tissues she finds there. Then she returns home, locks herself in the toilet, and while mother puts dinner on the table, delicately applies a razor blade to the flesh between her naked thighs. Erika's "hobby," as Jelinek drily puts it, "is cutting her own body."

Haneke specializes in modernist, cerebral horror films, but The Piano Teacher's French cast (in Viennese locations) produces an odd linguistic disjunction—softening the authoritarian ambience that would have inevitably attached itself to a German-language version. The movie is not as punitive as Haneke's Benny's Video or Funny Games. Nor is it as restrained as his masochistically faithful adaptation of Kafka's The Castle. Where Jelinek's backloaded novel maps a force field of sexual repression, Haneke rationalizes its flow, proceeding from one outrageous set piece to the next. Ultimately he reaches the point of diminished returns, most spectacularly when too strenuously promoting the Melanie Klein nightmare of overstimulated Erika's attempt to merge with the maternal body. (Hilariously, Mom attributes this behavior to Erika's pre-performance jitters.)

In part because Huppert is too demanding an actress to ever appear lost (the only compulsion she can truly dramatize is precisely the compulsion to dramatize), her Erika is far sterner and less vulnerable than Jelinek's poignant monster. In the novel, Erika is pleasurably confused by the fatal attentions of a bumbling young seducer. The movie Erika is a more formidably chic creature whose complex of bizarre symptoms is a dragon to be slain by her forward student, Walter (handsome Benoît Magimel). Walter's admiration has unforeseen effects, but as Erika grows increasingly psychotic, he is correspondingly emboldened. Their first tryst, in a concert-hall women's room, immediately after Erika has punished her most talented student by—well, you'll see—is an explosion of pent-up eros. The scene, which feels like a single take, is a triumph for the filmmaker—the sequence in which his drive to control most closely approaches that of his protagonist.

After directing ardent Walter through the proceedings (and thoroughly frustrating his desire), the newly awakened Erika assures him that he will receive her subsequent "instructions." This weighty missive, which Walter reads only after following Erika home and helping to barricade her bedroom door against Mother, goes on for pages—a score worthy of the Marquis de Sade and equally unplayable. Like de Sade, Erika is writing from within her prison walls; unlike the marquis, she's cloaking her desire in an additional hair shirt of shame.

Haneke's fortissimo method overwhelms much of Jelinek's feminist critique. (It's no coincidence that the novelist was singled out by Jörg Haider's Freedom Party as a maker of "degenerate art.") Nothing in the movie can match the subtlety of Huppert's hopeful anticipation as her putative lover reads the disgusting letter aloud. Given the movie's literary antecedents, it's fitting that its greatest transgression would be the articulation of a written scenario.


A violent family history weighs upon the sensitive protagonist of Shot in the Heart, adapted from Mikal Gilmore's memoir of his murderous older brother, Gary, the first man to be executed after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and, thanks to Norman Mailer's epic The Executioner's Song, a character in the national dream-life.

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