Dir. Michael Haneke. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot
No director on the planet has Michael Haneke’s stomach, an organ which can eat rotting meat and human shame in equal portions without so much as a gurgle. Similarly, the number of performers with Isabelle Huppert’s willingness to embrace difficult material is a small one indeed. Put them together and you get what is, by my calculations, probably the worst date night movie ever made.
Erika Kohut (Huppert) is a professor of music in Vienna specializing in Schubert and Schumann, and she lives in a world of men; it’s not the cute world that people chirruped about 180 miles east six decades before, either. Professionally, Kohut is basically alone, a rare woman surrounded by male teachers and students alike. When a prospective student named Walter Klemmer (Magimel) applies and has an excellent audition, only Kohut, whose class the young man is trying to join, voices disapproval. He’s too old to become a concert pianist, and the fact that he has waited so long to get training suggests an unserious approach which is directly blocking someone else who cares more. She’s overruled. In an earlier scene, she goes to the porn shop and is surrounded by taller, lumpier men while she waits for a video room to open up. It’s a scene which is funny in the way it recalls a line for the bathroom or concessions or something similarly kid-friendly, but it’s also a clear slap in the face to the men browsing the racks and waiting for their turn: one can practically hear their brains saying, “What is one of these doing here in the flesh?” When Walter rapes her late in the film—because this is a socially relevant conversation at present, it’s worth noting that the rape is unambiguous—she seems prepared to take some kind of revenge on him. She turns the knife on herself instead, silently landing a blow somewhere above her heart and below her shoulder after watching him walk by in the protective safety of a small group. (The film does not suggest that she’s ever had sex with anyone besides Walter, a guess I made in the first fifteen minutes or so and then couldn’t let go of afterwards.) The Piano Teacher does not begin and end with male punishment; in the opening scene, Kohut comes home to her mother (Girardot), who interrogates her about where she’s been with the relentlessness which is usually found when both participants are thirty-five years younger. When are you going to dress your age? her mother scolds. The new dress that Kohut bought is deemed too chic, too sexy, and in an effort to tear it from her daughter’s hands, she tears the dress instead. It is no wonder that when Kohut is raped, her mother has been locked in her bedroom by Walter. This is not a film much given to symbolism, but in that moment the meaning is clear enough: a woman who slutshames another is unable to protect a woman from a much darker threat.
The phrase “carved out” has been dulled by use, but it’s hard not to watch Huppert and read Kohut as a woman who has carved out her own world. Somewhere along the line, long before the beginning of the film, Kohut decided that she had to cut something out of herself, and certainly her lack of tenderness fits the hypothesis. Her face is constantly in a true frown, not merely a resting neutral face. There is no appetite for light humor, or indeed any sort of humor. Socialization appears totally foreign to her, and excessive speech is nearly the same thing as any speech at all. Only her criticisms, especially of her students, come in more than one sentence. Tied to their benches and bent over the keys, the students are beaten with each one of them in turn as with bamboos. One assumes that she does not desire total aloneness, or maybe can’t afford it; the violent confrontation she has with her mother is tamed tearfully when she tells her mother she loves her and climbs into the bed the two of them share. All the same her mother is not part of any intimate piece of her daughter’s life; she does not share her life with her mother, who seems to have no life outside of her brilliant and frustrating daughter. Whenever able, she keeps her own counsel and makes decisions without reference to other actors. In one scene which has several potential motivations—probably jealousy? perhaps with a mix of concern for her professional standing now and in the future—Kohut sees Klemmer talking to her student, Anna (Anna Sigalevitch). Anna is late for a rehearsal because she has stress-induced diarrhea, which appears to be the least of the problems she’ll have en route to her Kohut-induced nervous breakdown. She watches Walter comfort Anna from a distance, make her laugh, walk her over to the piano. Kohut thinks about it for a while. She paces between the coatracks. She pauses with her back to the camera, hair pinned back in the messy version of a Madeleine Ester curl. (This is just one of the great many long shots used, as one expects from Haneke, in the film, and to me it is arguably the most effective one of the bunch. I’ve always admired shots which exist to show silent through lines of thought, and this one is a masterclass.) And then she smashes a glass in a napkin and puts the shards in Anna’s coat pocket. Predictably, she finds them handfirst, and even Kohut’s spoken sympathies for Anna’s nervous mother are curt. I have an appointment, she says when she’s had enough of listening to Anna’s mom say “we” worked and sacrificed, and she hustles her out. It is the only real compliment that Kohut gives one of her students.
Haneke makes the surprising reveal of Kohut’s sadomasochistic fantasies, by and large, into a vessel for Walter to criticize. After a tryst in the women’s bathroom after maiming Anna, which marks the first time that Klemmer says something along the lines of “You can’t do that to a man” when she refuses to let him ejaculate. What she offers himself is less obviously satisfying: Kohut begins piece by piece to open up. She gives him a letter, more like a set of instructions, on what she wants him to do to her. She wants him to strike her in the face. She wants him to tie her up, and shows him what he can use to do so. She wants him to punch her in the stomach so that her tongue will enter him. It’s a detailed notice, supplemented with verbal offers. Do you want to choose what I wear every day? she asks. You can do that too. Klemmer is sickened by her, but it does not turn him away for good, either. In the end he takes it as an incentive to be what Sylvia Plath talks about in “Daddy” when she writes:
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Klemmer, who is handsome, should be able to get any woman he wants, has chosen Kohut, and what she offers him and then retracts when she comes to feel the enormity within him is deeply appealing. I found myself jerking off outside your apartment, he says to her on the night he rapes her, and then blames her. You’ve made me as sick as you. You can’t do that to a man. And he takes it out on her in the physical and bloody fashion to which men are all too frequently accustomed to taking it out on women. While she’s being raped, Erica is as quiet as ever, except when she says, “Please stop.” No one says a word about whether or not you can do that to a woman.