Crazy like a fox
A worthwhile French film graces Chico only on video
No actress in contemporary movies goes crazy better than France’s Isabelle Huppert. She has remarkable and remarkably varied mad scenes in several recent releases, including Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinees Sentimentales and Claude Chabrol’s Merci Pour le Chocolat. But in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, she surpasses nearly everything she’s done in this vein.
She’s onscreen in nearly every shot of Haneke’s film, in which she plays the title role, Erika Kohut, a skilled and rather solitary musician and teacher who lives alone with her mother (played by Anne Girardot, a formidable actress from an older generation of European film). Artistic discipline and mother-daughter conflict loom large in this sidelong character study, but the dramatic and psychological dramatics of the story emerge by way of her sudden, tortured romance with a younger man (Benoit Magimel) who is one of her students.
Adapted from a novel by Emil Jelinek, the film has no lack of lurid-sounding subject matter. Erika shares a bed with her mother at home, devises secret tortures for her students, makes regular visits to a local porn emporium, and constructs elaborate scenarios of perverse sex-play with her increasingly confounded young admirer. But Huppert’s pertly austere performance and Haneke’s coolly detached staging insure that the resulting portrait is long on sensitivity and short on sensationalism.
If sado-masochistic impulses play an increasingly prominent and complex role in the characterization, there is nothing indulgent or pandering about the onscreen results. In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, Huppert is alone onscreen with her back to the camera—and yet conveys a strong and moving sense of the violently repressed passions of her hauntingly isolated character.
The Piano Teacher is a devastating psychological portrait, but it is also a surprisingly moving tragedy of amour fou—mad love. Huppert and Haneke make it impossible for us to dismiss Erika as simply screwed up, and Huppert in particular makes the character’s contradictions into something mysterious and deeply human.