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Kino on Video presents
The Piano Teacher (2001)

"I have no feelings. Get that into your head. If I ever do, they won't defeat my intelligence."
- Erika (Isabelle Huppert)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: November 04, 2002

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoit Magimel
Director: Michael Haneke

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (explicit and unusual sexual situations, brief nudity)
Run Time: 02h:05m:13s
Release Date: November 05, 2002
UPC: 738329026424
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ A-B+B C+

DVD Review

Even the most ardent moviegoer doesn't know just what it is that he or she wants to see—we all want to be surprised and entertained and to go somewhere we haven't been before. The sadomasochistic fantasies of a Schubert-playing Parisian spinster doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would survive a market research focus group, so we can be thankful that it's not focus groups who make motion pictures. (Not yet, anyway.) But The Piano Teacher triumphed at the Cannes Film Festival and on the art house circuit in the U.S., and it merits more than a passing glance from film fans.

There's sexual repression, and then there's more sexual repression, and then there's this. The lovely Isabelle Huppert goes beyond dowdy to play Erika, the piano teacher of the film's title, whose sexual inclinations have been so tamped down over the years that she makes Anthony Hopkins in The Remains Of The Day look like Austin Powers. The clichéd version of this character would have all her passion coming out in her music, and there's some of that, but there's a whole lot more to this character study.

Director Michael Haneke's movie, like his previous one, Code Unknown, isn't especially strong on story, but it's full of fascinating psychology, here almost entirely about Erika. Though she's nosing into middle age, she still lives with her mother, and while Erika has her own room in the apartment, she sleeps in a twin bed next to Mom's. Haneke isn't too explicit on the point, thankfully, but many of Erika's issues with sex are no doubt wrapped up in problems with the old lady. (It's a mother/daughter relationship that may put you in mind of the Edies in Grey Gardens.) Schubert is Erika's specialty, and she's a strict taskmistress as a teacher—a single withering comment can reduce one of her students to tears, and Erika isn't above even sabotage to see that she stays at the top of the Schubert food chain.

But Erika is no female version of Mr. Chips, that's for sure. She haunts the porno shop at the local mall, and favors the video booths there for private viewings. The movie is pretty explicit on this point, and though decency forbids my providing too much detail here, suffice it to say that Erika finds the necessary props she needs for her pleasure in the booth's trash bin; previous patrons' discarded tissues have a particular appeal for her.

Of course someone comes along to disturb the delicate if unusual equilibrium that Erika has established: it's Walter (Benoit Magimel), an engineering student who also is a skilled pianist, a young, handsome man taken with the rather dowdy music teacher many years his senior. They meet at a private recital, and their relationship is at the center of the film. He's drawn to her, by her music, and by the obvious passion that pulses beneath her placid surface; he's also a young guy pretty much just looking for a girlfriend, and he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. The centerpiece of the movie in many ways is, as described by a reviewer for The New Yorker (quoted in the copy on the back of the DVD case), "what may be the strangest sex scene in the history of movies," and who am I to argue with The New Yorker? As it so often is in these situations, the interaction between Walter and Erika is less about sex than it is about power, and despite its tremendous unconventionality, it succeeds in allowing Erika to ensnare Walter.

This is no pretty little courtship, however, not by a long shot, and Erika leads Walter down her primrose path into an arena where she can try and play out her fantasies. Again, it's about power, and she seems to be getting what it is that she wants—but be careful what you wish for. This is not a family-friendly movie by any measure, and not just modesty prevents me from discussing it in more detail, for it's a character better seen than described. And to that end, Huppert's performance is an unflinchingly brave one. It's easy to imagine many actresses of her stature dismissing the script out of hand, but she puts it all on the line here, and the results are just staggering. On paper the character is close to completely reprehensible, but Huppert not only humanizes her, she makes us empathize with Erika—we don't forgive her for her nastiness and occasional brutality, but we come to understand her, and ache for her as she searches for love, and sabotages her own quest.

Huppert gets able support from Magimel, and especially from Annie Girardot as her mother; Haneke has the good sense to stay out of the way both of his story and his actors, and there's an almost clinical aspect to the filmmaking, one that allows the viewer to connect the dots, instead of having trite insights spoonfed to us. (It is, in short, the kind of thing that European filmmakers do much better than American ones.) This may not be the most perfectly composed or constructed film you'll ever see, but it's a characterization and a performance that are absolutely indelible.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Haneke favors master shots and long takes, and it's a filmmaking style that reaps handsome rewards on DVD. And the transfer here is a solid one, with strong, saturated colors, and only occasional debris interfering with the picture quality. I wish the transfer were an anamorphic one, though.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchno


Audio Transfer Review: Ambient noise can be a little high, and given that so much of the film is shot indoors, exterior scenes expose the problems with the dynamics—cars whizzing by sound like so many guns going off. But otherwise the audio quality is pretty steady.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The principal extra is an interview (20m:22s) with Huppert, in English, in which she reflects on the film—she sees its principal subject as being the "difference between love and seduction." She's articulate and informative about her role and about the filmmaking process generally, which she describes as "more technical than philosophical"—that is, the time for reflection is before the fact, and the set is a place to get the work done. I can only imagine that her directors are thankful for such a practical attitude from one of the brightest lights in French cinema.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

A searing character study with a triumphant lead performance by Huppert, The Piano Teacher is at times strange, at times wonderful, and at times downright painful to watch. How many movies can you say that about? Not too many, and while it's hard to give it a wholeheartedly rousing endorsement—it's not a two-thumbs-up kind of picture, it's not for everyone, and I must admit that I'm not even sure I liked it—it's a story and a character that will stay with you for a good long while.

 


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