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Pål Sverre Hagen,
Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Erika Kohut is a pianist, teaching music. Schubert and Schumann are her forte, but she's not quite at concert level. She's approaching middle age, living with her mother who is domineering then submissive; Erika is a victim then combative. With her students she is severe. She visits a sex shop to watch DVDs; she walks a drive-in theater to stare at couples having sex. Walter is a self-assured student with some musical talent; he auditions for her class and is forthright in his attraction to her. She responds coldly then demands he let her lead. Next she changes the game with a letter, inviting him into her fantasies. How will he respond; how does sex have power over our other faculties? Written by
The Metaphysics of Self-Denial. This comment is bound to provoke some controversy by disagreeing with those who have easily classified this film as an indictment of sexual repression and self-denial. Michael Haneke (as a film-maker) and brilliant Isabelle Huppert (as the music professor Erika Kohut) place sexual relationships within a larger frame of reference -- that of the boundaries of one's own SELF.
Erika is a highly intelligent, perfectionistic, ambitious and driven woman, who has single-mindedly and relentlessly identified her whole self with her work and achievement. In a sense, she is madly competitive and is painfully sensitive to any kind of attempt to "sideline" her or, even more importantly, to take her and her opinions for granted. She is no puppet in anyone's theatre. She is unpredictable and that's one of her major instruments of self-assertion. She is overly harsh on everybody surrounding her -- you need a pair of plyers to pull the most modest words of praise from her tight mouth. Observe Erika's body language in the film: accentuated pride, not an insignificant dose of aplomb and even snobbishness, cold sternness, and extremely caustic sense of humor.
But look more carefully: Erika is most harsh towards herself. Unimaginably and cruelly harsh on herself! Erika's fear of sex is not just a function of her mother's repression and other hackneyed reasons examined in thousands of other movies. Erika is first and foremost obsessed with what entering into any kind of a relationship, be it casual sexual intercourse or an enduring love affair, means to her sense of personal independence. She is prepared to forego relationships and suffer as a consequence, rather than to "succumb" and be forever unsure of whether she had given in or emerged on top. She experiences all human relationships, and sexual ones above all else, as a field of power play, of asymmetrical exchange of influences. And there is one thing she apparently cannot withstand at all -- and that's a thought, yes -- just a thought!, of yielding. Her world is truly stark and Gothic, it's a world of maximalist and dramatic choices -- yes or no, on top or on the bottom, bright or dark. She craves the most violent contrasts and cannot stand living in the zones of shades of grey. She understands only super- or subordination in the purest of forms.
Many would probably be correct to argue that Erika's obsession with remaining beyond anybody's influences is in many ways an outcome of her total mental slavery to her mother. And this is obviously a valid point. But the film's posing of the problem of sex in explicit power-related terms, in terms of a power game with fluid rules and irredeemably uncertain outcomes should be the primary focus of analysis. The Piano Teacher's finale is resounding in its relentless dramatism and even stoicism. Erika's conscious pursuit of emotional self-denial for the sake of what she deems her true (and avaricious) God -- self-sufficiency and professional greatness reveals that there is her war with her own humanity and her attempt to become godlike (as one poet said, 'eternal, cold and true'). Her God is completely indifferent to her sufferings and human flaws and needs -- He demands constant sacrifices, demonstrations of loyalty (not unlike Abraham's readiness to slay his own son Isaac at the Almighty's behest). In that sense, her character is not totally unlike the character of the obsessive and self-destructive chess player Alexander Luzhin from The Luzhin Defence or the driven John Nash from The Beautiful Mind (the parallels should not be extended). These movies both show the curative powers of love. There angelical women serve to relieve masculine anguish and self-destructiveness.
Here a man discharges this function.
Erika's sexuality is a function of all these considerations and complications. As a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, she is aware that any action in a relationship may be interpreted in radically divergent ways. Consequently, she alternates haltingly and hysterically between the sadistic and masochistic modes, obsessing over she is in "charge" of a relationship. This shows even in the horrendous scene when Erika asks her potential lover Walter to beat her up.
Equally interesting and intriguing are the two other main characters in the movie, Walter and Erika's pesky and nosy mother. Walter's deep attraction to Erika reveals his inner demons -- his fantasy to serve as a redeemer, a liberator of sorts for a self-destructive woman. He desires to redeem the male part of humanity by welcoming Erika into the world of "normal" human sexuality, by curing her of her pains and doubts. The more he takes upon himself the mantle of a heroic redeemer, the more intense her battle of wills with him becomes, the more symbolic her conflicts with him grow. In a sense, Walter loses in the end! He deprives Erika of her virginity but she pretends to be dead and ice-cold during the act: the ultimate rejection and delegitimation!
Erika's mother is probably the true monster of the movie. Avaricious vampire of a human being. She buzzes with her annoying commentaries and bileful complaints over the viewer's ear like a mosquitto that she is. A spiteful, repulsive character.
This is a highly disturbing and extremely thought-provoking movie with absolutely no clear answers. Bravo, Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert for a brilliant movie and an equally brilliant and tense performance!
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