May contain spoilers, I guess.
I actually watched this film very shortly after receiving my rec, but I wanted to let it stew for a bit, and ended up watching it a second time. I feel like a lot of the descriptions I’d read of The Piano Teacher beforehand were misleading – such as it being a film about BDSM, or that Erika, the titular character played by Isabelle Huppert, realizes that her dark sexual fantasies don’t translate to reality through her relationship with her cocky, snakelike young student. To say that the film portrays BDSM rather grossly misrepresents that form of sexual expression, in my opinion, for this film isn’t about expression at all, but about abuse, repression, control, perfectionism, and self-loathing, and the way all these lethal ingredients combine in one woman’s mind, making her totally vulnerable to a man looking for a conquest. Isabelle Huppert’s face alone makes this film utterly compelling in the way she maintains complete control over it in her professional life, only to crumble and break once she lets her guard down to someone she truly thinks will understand her twisted perception of love and sex.
During her interactions with pupils, she is downright cruel at times, always blunt, keeping them afraid of her so that she can achieve an image of complete control over her emotions and abilities. This obviously stems from her submissive relationship with her interfering mother, who pulls the strings for everything Erika does, from her recitals to her social outings. In turn, when a headstrong new student swaggers into her life, insisting that she teach him, and eventually insisting that he loves her, she sees this as an opportunity to both surrender and domineer. It’s complex, and Haneke’s style is so muted and objective that at times the motivations of the characters seem obscured. Walter, the student, particularly appears to make massive shifts in opinion, from desperately wanting Erika to telling her that she stinks and repulses him. To me this erratic behavior eventually revealed itself to be an elaborate game, designed to ultimately conquer and destroy Erika. Perhaps he was maddened by the way she refused to indulge his desires and insisted that they do things her way, or perhaps he felt threatened by the assertion of her dark sexuality and came to hate her for not conforming to his rules of heteronormative relationships. Walter’s repeated statements that there are things a woman simply can’t do to a man suggests to me that he has been conditioned to expect certain things out of sex, and when she doesn’t comply, his desire to have her morphs into something much more dangerous. Maybe he’s just a bastard. Pure speculation. But it is fascinating to watch the way he manipulates her, and the way her seeming strength of character is masking a desire to feel out of control in a situation that she actually orchestrated.
Haneke tackles all these subversive, sometimes repulsive, scenes with a refusal to indulge the “gross out” factor that sets him far apart from many of his contemporaries. This film isn’t about the visceral reaction you get from seeing violence, sex, or explosive emotions, but exploring the intellectual side of why our desires manifest the way they do. His approach worked extremely well for me, keeping me fully engrossed during the film, and contemplating many of the issues it raised long after. I did have a strong emotional reaction, because these ideas have all, in less extreme ways, caused me hurt in my own life. Who can you trust with your secrets? How do you escape the boundaries of restrictive parents, disciplined fields of study, and social norms about sexuality? When you boil it down to these questions, The Piano Teacher hardly seems sensational; it is a beautifully acted look at the way our need for control and desire to give it up can warp into something dark and dangerous if it isn’t accompanied by trust and acceptance, two of the hardest things to find in a world that values self-sufficiency and perfection over fulfillment.