There seems to be a convention of more modern foreign cinema, particularly with European countries; when you want to go visceral and real, brutally so, make it a psycho-sexual drama. I may just be saying that too soon after seeing Sombre and The Pillow Book, but it felt too regular an occurrence for me to overlook. As for this one, The Piano Teacher decides to take said convention and run with it to a rather nasty end, smashing head-on into a brick wall in a blaze of creepiness and unsettling. This would seem to be Michael Haneke’s burgeoning first attempt at an overtly award-garnering film, a style he would cement in his stature with films like Cache, The White Ribbon, and last year’s Amour. It was very easy to watch, even if it wasn’t that easy to sit through (a somewhat contradictory statement, but I don’t mean it so); the film itself is very well done, but it’s the content that makes this a rather hard watch.
The eponymous piano teacher is a middle-aged woman who, rather beleagueredly, lives with her mother in their apartment, even sharing the same bed. Her mother is by far the dominant personality in her life, commanding the daughter and constantly wresting control from her hands, only to have the daughter fight back to regain control, resulting in a fierce verbal (and sometimes physical) tug-of-war between the two. The film follows her as it sets up the initial relationships, characters, and settings, not appearing to be anything more than what it is; then, in a scene that comes out of nowhere, our protagonist enters what appears to be a porn shop, complete with “private booths” for entertainment viewing, where she sniffs at the used tissues. Some more regular scenes, and then we see her in the bathroom, with a razor, and no underwear; to say she then “goes to town” is putting it extremely mildly, and ignoring completely the squeamish factor that’s taking place. The whole film is like this; dramatic scenes, followed by a perversely alternate scene, etc, so if you’re looking to settle back and watch this without a lot of fuss, The Piano Teacher is not going to let that happen at all. Another aspect that may unsettle more than a few viewers is the central romantic relationship, if indeed it could be called that. I’ve mentioned numerous times before on certain films that the romantic angle of the story was forced for the sake of forcing it, and was so unbelievable, but The Piano Teacher takes it a step further. The neuroses and psycho-sexuality of the main character is so that any chance of a normal relationship is about zero, so any relationship that takes place will be inherently disfigured, and boy is this one disfigured; to say that it is forced is overlooking the fact that the main character couldn’t possibly have a normal, evolving relationship, so the forcing of the two to collide together is a decidedly meta decision, to point out these aspects of the character to us. Interesting stuff, I found. In all, it’s the relationships between the characters that is on display here, which seems to be a running thing in Haneke’s films in lieu of a straightforward plot, but hey, it’s his film; I’m not begrudging him for his approach. if anything, I’m begrudging him for the lengths he goes to to unnerve us, which are lengthy indeed.
As good as The Piano Teacher was, I still had a pretty tough time getting through it, though it wasn’t the film’s fault; I can totally attribute that to my personal mood and demeanor of the day. I was just too antsy to sit through a methodical, even-tempered, “fine art” film, but once I started, I didn’t want to cut off somewhere in the middle and come back to it a few days or even a week later and not remember where I was, so I watched this in a few short bursts at a time, and ended up getting through it okay. Now, again, don’t let this deter you from potentially seeing this, because it’s a very well done film. It’s just the subject matter that might make a few people squirm, in ways they hadn’t really been expecting to going into it. If you’re familiar with some of Haneke’s other works, like The White Ribbon and Funny Games, this will be another solid entry in that man’s oeuvre for you. Just don’t expect anything too different, I guess is the best way I can put it; it’s another well done film by Haneke, and there’s little else to it, aside from the occasional highly unsettling content, so fair warning.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10