If you think Michael Haneke is a sick bastard, take comfort from the fact that he thinks the same about you. In fact, he’s already told you so.
In the director’s horrifying 1998 provocation Funny Games, two men spend virtually the entire film torturing the members of a vacationing family. The assailants then proceed to address the camera directly, saying, in effect: “Hey, don’t judge us. You’re the ones sitting there with the popcorn watching this for entertainment.”
Haneke delights in making his audience squirm with portrayals of physical and emotional violence, and with blurring the lines between the film’s reality and the viewer’s. When he mixes his visceral power with real feeling for his characters, as he did in last year’s brilliant Code Unknown, the result can be as breathtaking as it is unnerving. Or he can use his harrowing images to punch you in the gut, then laugh at you for standing there and taking it.
The Piano Teacher presents one of the year’s trickiest challenges for a film critic. Haneke’s tale of one troubled, unhappy woman delivers a perversely fascinating character study for much of its running time. It’s also so deeply, brutally and irredeemably unpleasant at times that recommending it to anyone feels like a betrayal of trust. Haneke wants to turn cosmic-scale human ugliness into art, and you don’t know whether to applaud his nerve or wash your psyche out with soap.
His titular heroine—if it’s at all appropriate to refer to her as such—is Erika Kuhot (Isabelle Huppert), who teaches at the prestigious Vienna Music Conservatory. Her days consist largely of pummeling her students’ egos into a fine paste with withering criticism; her nights are spent in the apartment she still shares with her overbearing mother (Annie Girardot), despite the fact that Erika won’t be seeing her 30s again any time soon. She finds time to sneak in a little hard-core porn, but doesn’t know what to do when prospective student Walter (Benoit Magimel) expresses genuine affection for her. What will Walter do when he learns what Erika’s notion of a romantic evening involves?
Haneke hides those darkest secrets from the audience for a while, which is just as well for everyone. In the earlier stages of The Piano Teacher, we watch Erika mutilate herself with a razor, urinate on herself while peeping on backseat drive-in sex, and huff the semen-soaked tissues in the porn booth trash can. It’s an orgy of self-degradation—neatly explained by issues with mommy and daddy—and everyone’s invited.
The fact that it all works for so long is something of a small miracle. Huppert invests Erika with deep reservoirs of pain mostly through small movements in a placid exterior. It’s the kind of performance often referred to as “brave” simply because the actress has to subject herself to a hundred on-screen indignities, but Huppert succeeds through a restraint that makes her just as heartbreaking when she’s opaque as when she’s in tears.
And Haneke manages to provide complex explanations for her increasingly icky behavior—for a while. In one of the film’s pivotal sequences, Erika plots to maim one of her more talented students, an act that initially appears to be a brutal act of pianist envy. Then we see Erika speak with the student’s mother, and get a glimpse of justification—that Erika sees her cruelty as a preemptive strike against a girl who could wind up like her. In its sick, twisted way, the moment is almost touching.
But at long last, there’s just no excusing The Piano Teacher’s grueling home stretch. Through a sea of vomit, assault, rape and attempted suicide, Haneke drags Erika and the audience through an ordeal that makes Requiem for a Dream look like Benji. It stops being an exploration, and turns into a punishment. “This is what she gets,” Haneke suggests with a whiff of moral superiority, “and this is what you get for caring about her.”
It’s a damned shame. As a filmmaker, Haneke’s got talent to burn. But he needs to lay off the impulse to burn the people who watch his movies, too. If you want to thank me for coming by telling me I’m a sadist for watching, I’ll just be showing myself out, thanks very much.