She leaks! (Fountains of snot, excited-girl-juice, puke, excited-girl- slobber, and just plain red blood geyser from her like the dancing torrents in Cirque de Soleil's "O.") She reeks! (When not suffering from puke-breath--a crazy-girl malady known to all bulimics and serial antidepressant-chewers--her body, we are told, just..."gives off odor.") She's every clamped-down badass Anti-Mom you ever hated. She's Nurse Ratched beating time on a tick-tock metronome. She's the voice on the other end at the phone company turning you down without a hint of sorrow in her "I'm so sorry." She's every cold, unfeeling, control-crazed female boss, teacher, authority figure you've ever had--and this time, Michael Haneke is going to get payback. He's going to show you things you didn't see when she was torturing you in uniform.
Well, what is there to show? Mostly, hypocrisy--not conscious two-facedness, but the sadder, furtive, ratlike scuttling of a woman whom Control-Mania has turned into the trembliest sort of closet perv. (There is a very funny moment when the Piano Teacher, busted, walks away from a teenybopper she has peeping-tommed with the head-erect, proud-mary posture she uses to stride away from the piano grand.) La Pianiste (played by Isabelle Huppert) seems to meet her match in a talented young pianist. But what's going to happen? Is he going to crumble under her sadistic, mean-mommy thumb, or, like the hero of VENUS IN FURS, will he "now become the hammer, she the anvil"?
THE PIANO TEACHER is the shrillest, most unapologetically straight-up woman-hating film in many a year; but there is a bit more to it than that. Start with the primary instrument of Haneke's payback against the withholding women of the world--Isabelle Huppert's face. There seems to be a law, a kindly one, that says that French beauties become Great Actresses when they lose their looks. It wasn't true of Catherine Deneuve (who, at least, was a great movie star and a great object in her heyday) and it isn't true of Isabelle Huppert, about whom Kael once memorable wrote that there are many reasons not to go to movies nowadays, but the omnipresence of Huppert in them ranks among the first. Haneke double-deals: he pretends that the movie is an AUTUMN SONATA- style vehicle for a Huppert tour-de-force performance (it is, in fact, at many moments a conscious parody of Bergman's film) and at the same time gets eepy-creepy mileage off the appearance of Huppert's awful decline. That freckly farm-girl face with those oddly open eyes that once seemed an invitation to raunchy fun now has curdled to a point nearing Sissy Spacek's unself-protected "honesty." And the character of the Piano Teacher--psychologically enslaved by a meanie mommy who makes her sleep in the same bed--seems to be both reflected in and mocked by Huppert's ruined looks. ("You had your chance when you were hot," Haneke's camera seems to sneer at her, "and look at you now!")
Though the whole movie seems a set-up to beat on this iron-fisted negator of maternality, a few surprising moments worthy of the wrinkles in a Strindberg play leak in. After the Piano Teacher sees her Adonis comforting a nervous female student, Huppert grinds broken glass and pours it into the female's coat pocket. When the Adonis figures out that the Teacher is the mutilator of the girl's hand, he runs into the ladies' bathroom where she is arousedly tinkling. We expect he will kick the stall door down and beat her silly--instead, he leaps up to the top of the stall door, peers over, and initiates some helplessly aroused sex-play. And later, when the Piano Teacher tries to control this impulsive making-out, the Adonis recovers his dignity by doing jumping, running-in-place, and Jake LaMottaish speed-boxing maneuvers, right in Huppert's face--a reminder of his superior youth and vigor that one-ups her brainier forms of control.
THE PIANO TEACHER gets at some interesting issues about sex and control: When does giving it up just mean another, reordered form of controlling everything? But Haneke's approach is closer to the brazen rape-fantasy of a slasher movie than anything more...what? "Serious"? Meditative? Haneke lives in a world where bitches get what they deserve, whether it's the twittering bourgeois mom (who plays an even more pathetic twittering bourgeois mom in THE PIANO TEACHER) getting dumped in the river with a sardonic "Ciao bella!," or the pain-seeking Pianiste getting way more than she bargained for.
At moments, THE PIANO TEACHER seems to be a parody of an art movie--or of other people's art movies. (When Haneke uses the music Kubrick used for Redmond Barry's approach to Lady Lyndon to accompany Huppert's Kleenex-worship in the porn shop, one has to think the effect is conscious.) Haneke digs assiduously, and sometimes flips a scene in directions you couldn't have expected. But mostly the movie seems to be made of unsweet revenge. For his highbrow trimmings, Haneke seems to identify with the mean young jocks who terrorize the helpless in his pictures. Haneke can rationalize and pontificate all he pleases; but the audience can feel where an artist's deepest affections lie.
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