The Piano Teacher
(Note: I've tried to tread lightly here, but I do allude to some major plot points. So there may be some discernable spoilers. Proceed with caution.)
As a filmmaker, Michael Haneke is fascinated by violence within society and the effects it has. With this film, he narrows his scope to focus on the violence visited upon one woman by her own hand and what happens when she tries to find that violence elsewhere. Which is merely a hoity-toity way of describing one of the most spellbinding, nerve-shredding experiences you're likely to have this year. Haneke's good at ripping up the nerves of his audience using nothing more than languid long takes and people chatting at a normal volume, and he's in top form here. He just might be the best formal director working today (though I still like Peter Jackson more). While this film is rather removed from his other work in its disuse of fancy distancing techniques (the wild fourth-wall smashing of Funny Games
; the Brechtian black-leader edits reminiscent of O Lucky Man!
in Code Unknown
), he's got something else up his sleeve: a ferocious, brilliant performance from reknowned French actress Isabelle Huppert. Huppert's portrait of a repressed woman who just wants to find a little love, even if it is perverse, sadomasochistic love, is nothing short of alchemic -- she manages to imbue this potentially repulsive character with a measure of dignity and sympathy, which helps to take the edge off Haneke's coldly clinical directorial eye . And it is essentially a love story, or at least a story about love, even if the terms are alien to most sensibilities. S & M is about mutual control; even if one party is submissive to the other, the dominant partner will do nothing that the submissive wouldn't want to happen. It's a particularly trusting form of love, which is what makes the actions at the film's climax such a violation -- they are born not out of love but anger and contempt. So what we have is not an easy-to-watch film, obviously. It's not remotely feel-good and could be accused of sadism. But I'd disagree with the latter. While it may not be Haneke's best or most effective film (Funny Games
, for all its troubling and revolting thematic material, still trumps this), it is his most complete, fully realized work. And, with this and Code Unknown
, the demonic provocateur of Austria shows that he might have an emotional side after all.