The title of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, “Funny Games,” would have been just as appropriate a moniker for his second French-language feature as “The Piano Teacher.” Pic joins a number of recent Gallic excursions into the sexual twilight zone such as “Romance,” “Baise-Moi” and “Intimacy” in pontificating loftily on the kind of punishing coitus you probably never want to have. Opening intriguingly, with a taut first half distinguished by genuinely transgressive moments and a fascinatingly prickly characterization from lead Isabelle Huppert, the psychodrama then slips off the rails, unraveling into increasingly ugly ludicrousness. While it may score some degree of travel solely on the strength of its enticing themes, only true devotees of the Austrian director will be lining up for lessons.
The drama was adapted by Haneke from the novel by fellow Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, a work that challenges standard notions of permissible female sexuality while at the same time attacking her country’s proud musical heritage by underlining the self-denial and frustration that goes into training and fostering discipline in gifted musicians.
An esteemed professor at the Vienna Conservatory, Erika (Huppert) lives in an unhealthy state of co-dependency with her obsessively controlling mother (Annie Girardot). Tough, demanding and frequently cruel with her students, she lets off steam with unorthodox sexual practices, spending time watching hardcore porn, engaging in vaginal self-mutilation with a razor blade or cruising the drive-in to spy on couples making out in their cars.
Erika meets a precocious young upstart who’s not intimidated by her in handsome blond Walter (Benoit Magimel). An accomplished pianist, he is accepted into her master class, despite her strident reservations. Disdaining his continued overtures of courtship, Erika keeps herself at an icy remove, clearly threatened by her pupil’s cockiness and talent.
But Walter’s display of support and friendship for a nervous student (Anna Sigalevitch) at a recital unleashes a vicious response from Erika. While most suitors would run a mile from this kind of pathological jealousy, Walter scampers into the rest room after Erika and starts the dogged task of seducing her. It’s in this over-extended sequence that the derailment process begins. Erika refuses romantic intimacy, but coaxes Walter in stern, businesslike fashion to the point of orgasm then forbids him release. If he wants to continue seeing her, she insists on establishing the terms .
This she does in a detailed written account that makes the Marquis de Sade look like Maria von Trapp, conveying Erika’s requirement of total control and domination even in her own humiliation. Her lurid bedtime agenda and box of bondage accouterments turn Walter’s feelings from love to disgust.
He declines the invitation to hog-tie her then sit on her face and punch her in the stomach, but later succumbs to Erika’s attempts at reconciliation. Some no doubt will buy into Haneke and Jelinek’s psychoanalytical theorizing on the right of women to appropriate an aggressive, traditionally masculine sexual stance. But whatever valid points are being explored are hopelessly clouded by the film’s unwavering earnestness as it descends into silliness and excess. And while Haneke’s customarily elegant direction is as rigorous and exacting as Erika’s teaching methods, the final section is curiously lacking in any kind of climactic tension.
The choice to shoot a story set in Austria entirely in French is confusing at first. But the great pity here is that Huppert’s remarkably brave performance couldn’t have been put to the service of more sound material. Especially in the early going, the actress is fiercely compelling, appearing parched, uptight and aloof, but also pitiable. In the beautifully edited piano lessons themselves, she cuts a commanding figure as a cold perfectionist not averse to spitefulness. (The many lessons and recitals provide the only music heard in the film, and represent a big plus for classical music buffs.)
Girardot also starts well but falls victim to latter-reel absurdity. Magimel exudes confidence and charm, although his role lacks the psychological grounding to make Walter’s course of action credible.