Bright Lights Film Journal

Alienation and Perversion: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

Is the film reinforcing or exploding stereotypes about female sexuality, or both?

Michael Haneke’s latest film uses Vienna as its backdrop. Amongst its other high-cultural connections, Vienna is closely associated with Freud as the birthplace of psychoanalysis. Although the city does not figure prominently in this film, the location is highly ironic as we are given no insight into the central character’s disturbed mind. Despite her grotesque relationship with her mother and increasingly distressing, violent behaviour, Haneke offers us no explanations. His directorial tone is economic and neutral. He rejects the obvious potential for sensationalist sex and horror and neither criticizes nor condones Erika’s actions. The result of this reserve and objectivity is, surprisingly, the most lacerating and troubling film of 2001.

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher and Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. There is superficially little remarkable about her. She dresses like a conservative fortysomething. She lives with her mother. She works hard, teaching at the Conservatory and playing in the odd quartet after-hours. But beneath this middle-class facade of educated respectability lurks a very dark and perverse private life. Playing the character of Erika, Isabelle Huppert is on familiar territory, in a role similar to Claude Chabrol’s middle-class dramas full of skeletons rattling in the closet, but here she pushes the idea to its very limits.

Entry into Erika’s own underworld comes in the form of her relationship with her mother, which oscillates wildly between intense outbursts of physical anger, guilty reconciliation, and sexual longing. Erika is constantly monitored by her mother and is allowed very little space to maneuver. There is a real sense of claustrophobia that is perfectly mirrored by their shared bedroom, where they sleep side by side. Although Haneke makes absolutely no comment on Erika’s motivation, the dysfunctional relationship with her mother clearly colours Erika’s ability to interact with people and her blatant tendency to alienate all who come into contact with her.

This tendency is illustrated most clearly by her sexuality. Erika is a sadomasochist who lives her sexual life largely through fantasy. She mutilates her genitals with razor blades, watches porn films in video booths, and lurks in places where she might catch people having sex. Crucially, she appears to have no sexual interaction with anyone other than herself. Her response in all of these situations is strangely reserved and unsexual. Erika’s perception of sex, like human relationships, is strictly hands-off. Her sexuality is imagined, a point which is all too clear when her infatuated student, Walter (Benoît Magimel), suggests sex. This is the precise moment when the tensions, and horror, accelerate out of all proportion. In asking Erika to conceptually shift her sexuality out of her very private, abstract sphere into the very real and physical one, Walter unleashes a train of monstrous events as Erika struggles to enforce and confront her sadomasochistic desires.

As the relationship between Erika and Walter unfurls, it becomes apparent that Haneke’s skill lies in his detachment. Given the subject matter, he could have taken the easy, well-trodden road to titillation, but instead he opts for controlled repulsion: The Piano Teacher is graphic in what it suggests is happening onscreen but, as the camera rarely focuses on the heart of the action, gives the audience only glimpses rather than full-on close-ups. In this sense, Haneke constructs a position for us as voyeur, a third party to Erika’s frenetic descent, following her at a distance and never allowing us to come to grips with her in any satisfactory way. Coupled with the lack of voiceover or internal dialogue, Erika’s inability to express what she wants directly means that we are resolutely kept at the surface. In contrast to mainstream narratives, the audience cannot engage or sympathise with Erika and, moreover, does not want to. Erika is therefore doubly alienated.

Haneke’s directorial tone fits perfectly with Erika’s relationship with her life; she lives her life dispassionately, with no attachment to people, living in fantasy rather than reality. Haneke adopted the same approach in Funny Games (1997) where he laid bare society’s obsession with screen violence with his own foray into mindless, inexplicable acts of brutality. Typically, it is difficult to see where the critique begins and Haneke’s contribution to the body of violent films ends. The same ambiguity is true of The Piano Teacher. Is the violence there to shock – and it undoubtedly does shock – or to force us to question why audiences love horror and violence?

Alienation and perversion are the two main themes in The Piano Teacher, but Haneke makes no implicit connection between them. To link these ideas to a female character is brave. We have seen psychologically disturbed women onscreen many times before (Carrie, Repulsion, Misery, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), and we have seen modern femme fatales out to get what they want at any cost (The Last Seduction and Basic Instinct). But sadomasochists looking for thrills in porn shops and with teenage boys? The representation of a woman with nonconventional sexuality is where Haneke both triumphs and disappoints. Erika’s very conspicuous and aggressive presence in the all-male porn shop challenges preconceived ideas about female sexuality. To present sadomasochism as perversion, however, is to reinforce stereotypes and therefore social limitations on sexuality.