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The Piano Teacher – Michael Haneke

9 Sep

The Piano Teacher

Nationality: German

Spectacular, unflinching and appropriately enigmatic and non-judgemental plunge through the darkest places of sex and attraction – and classical music

Apologies for the absence of pictures for this review.  I don’t own this dvd yet myself.

The Piano Teacher tells a story of how sexuality can become twisted and destructive/self destructive – and within a classical music setting.  I must admit that I approached Piano Teacher with some trepidation – maybe to my shame and in spite of Haneke’s superb reputation and the considerable number of people violently offended by this film (which is, as we all know, always a sign of how good a film is!).  Why?  Is it just that there is no story subject that can inflict pain more than sex gone haywire?  Or had I seen just one too many films becoming dirges and hymns to the creator’s own emotional problems?  Maybe all of the above.  Maybe none.  But one thing I will say – it was perhaps the fact that the film was centred on music that alarmed me the most since music seems to be the one place where fiction comes crashing to the ground, with lack of understanding producing a weird kind of artificiality that I have come to dread.  For example, Jane Campion’s The Piano, though a beautiful film in many ways, suffered from this flaw big time, with music becoming this ethereal fantasy land or fairyland.

In the event though, I needn’t have worried on any count here.  Far from it.  Because Haneke pulled it off with superb skill and success.  This portrayal of the music scene is an unusual one because it makes no attempt to shy away from the sense of the dark and twisted that can linger in a lot of classical music – among performers more than composers, I am tempted to suggest – while the listeners sit there and politely applaud with no CLUE as to the reality.  Haneke’s portrayal has something subtly satirical about it, sometimes providing a welcome touch of light relief.  But at the same time it also provides a cloying sense of surrounding darkness – something almost imprisoning and very restrictive.  Like ballet and professional sports, classical music demands an essentially superhuman discipline and dedication that goes far beyond what is natural or healthy.  Completely chucking out any notions of classical music as something sweet and romantic, the film shows it as a dangerously refined force that you must surrender and capitulate to utterly – all life and emotion – and it demands this with a completely cold and rewardless cruelty.  Like a kind of religious chastity and restraint, it doesn’t sit well at all with the deeper darker places of the human soul and provides the perfect companion the main character’s twisted sexuality – both as inevitable results of the other.  Classical music in its pure salon form: probably the least sexy artform in the world, in spite of all the ‘high passions’ and romance and emotion it attempts to deal with or pretends it deals with.

And hey – I am saying all this as one who quite likes classical music!

Erica Kohut is a frosty lady working as a piano teacher.  She has moderately good piano skills and extremely BAD teaching skills (like a lot of musicians who end up supplementing their careers with teaching).  Seemingly obsessed with control and domination, and above all with preserving her icy exterior, she nevertheless still lives with her mother in a Steptoe and Son style relationship – not surprisingly an edgy relationship, almost totally under her mother’s thumb but straining rather vaguely against it.  And underneath that, her sexuality is predictably twisted.  She finds what fulfilment she can by haunting the porn booths and indulging in minor voyeurism, all the while carefully maintaining her frosty exterior.  And probably the last thing she ever expected was for someone to come along and love her.  Maybe she assumed that this was just not something that happened to people like her.  Maybe she hoped that her icy wall was sufficient to protect her from this basic human urge.  But it does happen, in the form of a very self-assured young pianist named Walter who is almost completely her opposite.  He becomes her student and has no problem whatever in declaring his love for the icy professor, in spite of her initial harsh reaction.  But the strange thing about love is that it tends to find ways in spite of what any conscious mind tries to do.  Unfortunately the result is not the blossoming of a character liberated from a sad state by the warm glow of love.  The result is a terrifying downward plunge and disintegration and a reminder that love and sex are both forces that can be as dark as you want them to be.

Things happen and eventually she finds herself accepting him in encounters rendered grotesque by her need to keep that icy control and domination of the situation.

Then more things happen in which she begins to reveal a more self-effacing and masochistic side.

Then further things happen in which she completely cracks and becomes something completely crawling and desperate.

In other words – the ice shattered (not melted) under the sudden appearance of his love and left her completely naked and terrified, even as her manipulative mind is still ticking over, working its way through things like a machine breaking down but still only able to carry on attempting to do what it has always done.  And no classical music can help her now.  I do wonder how much of this was deliberate on some level?  The shattering and the painful consequences, the begging to be degraded and hurt, then begging for forgiveness for her own perversions – was all that deliberately taken on in order to smash through what she was before, her icy isolated self, which obviously caused her infinite grief?  There are always many levels to things after all – levels of the mind, levels of the personality, levels of the soul . . .

And his response during all this?  That is very sadly human.  “You are sick – not my problem – I don’t want to know – I love you.”  Face it – this once-confident but largely innocent and never very clever young man is completely out of his depth here.

And all this until the gloomy conclusion.  At last the clash of two contradictory characters is complete and at last the whole thing comes home to roost.  He turns up late one night with one incoherent intention – of showing her just what all her confused masochistic desires and wishes imply.  It is a spectacular encounter – and filmed with amazing subtlety considering the subject matter.  He beats her up, rapes her, essentially demanding “Is this what you really want?” – simultaneously trying to ‘teach her a lesson’ and release his own frustration a bit as well.  The whole event proceeds with its own momentum now, until she is left battered and bleeding and ruined on the floor.

This is what I mean about the enigmatic nature of the film. It would be easy to sit back and see this as nothing more than a man, driven to frustration and finally raping her.  But it is so much more complicated than that (as reality usually is).  It is the logical and maybe inevitable conclusion of this dance of characters.  No longer is he the easy-going person of the start of the film – and there is no getting away from the fact that it was her that made him into what he has become now.  This is simply about understanding the mechanics of what is going on, not a matter of assigning blame or picking out a good guy and a bad guy – that is all way too trite.  It is infinitely to the film’s credit that it took on such an emotionally enigmatic and non-judgemental / non-black-and-white attitude to its subject matter.  If either of the two lead characters had been portrayed as somehow the ‘bad’ guy in this, then the film would have instantly failed.  Instead, Haneke somehow managed the remarkable job of taking us through this very dirty and painful story that shows neither male or female sexuality in any very good light without alienating either character!  And for that, my respect is vast.

As an aside, the attitude of the camera to the more extreme goings on is interesting.  You certainly can’t call it a voyeuristic lens here – Haneke shoots his material with what sometimes seems an admirable restraint and subtlety, sometimes almost seems to stray into the coy territory – as though the film is standing there stiff with distaste, trying to focus its eyes on something other than the nasty thing it is trying to show.  However, this could also be construed in a different way – as though it is responding to the audience’s own emotions and their own way of watching these things.  Maybe even forcing us to observe in such a manner to remind us of our role in all this and what we are watching.  Maybe.

Of course, the film itself can be as non-judgmental as you like, but the reactions of the viewer are another matter entirely.  Witness the spewing resentment that the film sometimes generates.  For one thing, it is almost impossible to keep your own sexuality out of this and almost impossible not to start making personal reactions.  It would be so easy to sit back and loathe that mixed up woman and her dangerously, selfishly manipulative mind that essentially breaks down completely the moment she is no longer in complete charge of the situation.  Especially if you are a man, lets be honest.  And likewise, it is easy to condemn Walter, for his harsh eventual reaction to that – and also maybe for being such an annoying cocksure ass at first.  Especially if you are a woman, lets be honest.  In doing this, Haneke has made the film into a very sharp reminder of just how easy it is to give way to the flaw of being judgemental.  Of just how hard it is to really get inside the kind of emotions and feelings that both these characters are going through (or that anyone is going through, real or fictional) – and understand the whole thing in its entirety.  In that event, if you take the non-judgmentality of the film as the ideal, the whole film thus becomes a test for the viewer – and a gruelling one as well.  And, if the film enrages you, then it is a sign of failing that test.  And likewise, if you end up rooting for one character – he is a saint, she is a bitch or she is marvellously human and he is just a little prick – then that is also a sign of failure.  I am sorry if that sounds arrogant on my part and maybe I am suddenly being judgemental about being non-judgemental (now there’s a nice paradox for philosophers!) – but this kind of testing of our own emotional awareness is rare indeed (normally directors seem to ask us to follow a specific emotion that they are trying to convey) and, in this case, it became one of the most prominent aspects of the film for me.

Many times during the film, I just wanted to hold my head and yell at the characters, demanding “Why?”  As in, why are you doing this to yourself?  What sort of sick pantomime are you enacting here?  Of course though, this is just a measure of the unflinching realism of the work and its power of conveying what it wants to convey.  Words like ‘bleak but necessary’ spring to mind – as in a necessary view for everyone if we are ever to figure out this mess called life that we have got ourselves into as a species and STOP ruining ourselves and everyone around us in this stupid way.  The reason being that the admittedly quite extreme goings on in this film can stand as a mirror to just about any and all of our own sexual interactions, no matter how ‘normal’ they seem.  It is there in the clash of icy and unreal ideals and dirty, smelly reality that encompasses just about our entire existence.  In the terror we all feel – have all been educated to feel – of the dark depths that can exist.  The stink of Piano Teacher is the stink of our entire lives!

At the back of my mind is the feeling that this story could have had a happy ending if either character had just been able to find that key to it – and the key was there.  The realism of Haneke’s film left that in no doubt, even up to the end.  Even during that climactic and hugely enigmatic ‘rape’ scene.  If he had realised X or if she had only realised Y, both of which were there to see.  Likewise though is the other realisation that it could never have had a happy ending – that the characters were doomed from the start by their own natures . . . and it is a tribute to the film’s subtlety and reality that I can talk like this so speculatively.   It is the great sadness of the film that this key was never found – just as so often in real life when you look at your own relationships or would-be relationships or unrequited relationships with confusion and uncertainty – and lack the trust, of both yourself and the other, yet can never forgive that other for the same mistrust and fear.  It is so easy to just let things go – to dismiss things as being simple when they are not.  He’s a bastard.  She’s a bitch.  Instead of actually looking at it all.  So easy to just be nasty and bitter and angry instead of just sitting back a moment and thinking “now wait a minute – WHAT is going on here?”  But then again, that is easy to say from without or with hindsight – easy to say that when you are in the audience.  It’s much harder to actually do it, because sometimes the hardest thing in the world to trust is your own instincts.

Were I using a ranking system here (which thankfully I am not!), Haneke would get a full 10/10 for this brave and virtuoso performance.  The human race on the other hand would score somewhat less well.

But then – since when is that anything new?

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