Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Night of Pain - The Piano Teacher

At roughly 8:30 pm on February 20, 2009 – a Friday, as I remember – I began to follow through on what turned out to be a fairly bad idea. Not a thoroughly horrible idea, fortunately, but still, all things considered, not a great one, either. The idea, as some of you may be aware, was to watch three movies, in a row, which, over the years, had each attained a level of infamy due to their unpleasant and shocking content. These films are considered to have an effect on the viewer not dissimilar to a kind of psychological assault. Even if the viewer ultimately considers these films to be good, he or she can’t exactly claim to be happy to have made the decision to watch them.

Some people, when faced with the opportunity to watch such films don’t hesitate to do so. I believe that some such people consider it a badge of honor to have these particular notches on their belts. “Oh, you haven’t seen that movie?” they like to be able to say. “Is it because you can’t handle watching live dogs fed into a trash compactor? It’s all fake, you know. Anyway, I didn’t have much problem with it, myself. Besides, as a film, it’s quite fascinating to see how the director constructs the mise en scene in such a way as to make the audience complicit in the action. For you see, in the cinema…” and so on until you want to throw your drink in their face.

Then again, some of them are simply curious, or fascinated by the grotesque. I know I am! And that curiosity and fascination, no matter how I try to distance myself from it, is what brought me here today, reasonably fresh from viewings of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside, and, the granddaddy of all such films, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I chose to watch the films in ascending order of infamy, which, by my calculations, put The Piano Teacher at the front of the line. And so, as I mentioned before, last night at 8:30, after a lovely dinner with my wife (who chose not to take part in this, and to retreat to the TV in our bedroom), I began.

Part One: Mild Discomfort

Or maybe not so mild, really, but I’m trying to build to a kind of crescendo by the end. You understand, I’m sure. But it’s true, the phrase “mild discomfort”, as applied to The Piano Teacher, doesn’t really cut it. Michael Haneke is actually something of a genius when it comes to making films that slide into the brains of the audience and start vigorously scratching. Apart from the weak pose of a film that is his overrated Funny Games, I have been absolutely riveted to the point of frozen existential terror (okay, that’s probably an exaggeration) by Cache’, Code Unknown, The Castle and, most especially, the brilliant The Seventh Continent. And now again here, with The Piano Teacher, whose titular character is played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert.

The teacher’s name is Erika Kohut, and at the end of every day, which she spends teaching highly talented piano students, and training them for the big leagues, she goes home to her apartment, which she shares with her mother (Annie Girardot), who is quite critical of her daughter, and who seems to have something to do with the reserved and repressed woman Erika seems to be. Except that Erika isn’t really repressed, or maybe she was, and when she eventually fought through the repression, it was like a dam bursting, complete with all the resulting carnage.

The first time we realize something might be up, in a small way, is when she meets a young man named Walter (Benoit Magimel). He is something of a piano prodigy, and Erika clearly likes him (though she will eventually be the sole vote against him when he applies in front of a panel of music teachers for a place in Erika’s master class), or at least finds him fascinating. The bulk of their first conversation together, however, involves Erika talking about the details of the madness of Schubert and Schumann, her two favorite composers.
So, she’s interested in madness. Who isn’t? The problems, and the discomfort, begin when we start to see Erika away from her mother and students, which doesn’t really happen until about a third of the way into the film (this is one of the things that distinguishes this film from the next two in this triple feature). And the first thing we see her do, when completely left to her own devices, is go to a sex shop – if that relatively mild term is really the one I want here – and go into a booth where she feeds a machine coins so she can watch hardcore pornography (which Haneke shows us, too). Although Erika may take advantage of this service in the manner that we would all initially expect her to, we don’t see that. What we do see is Erika picking up the used tissues of the male customer who preceded her in this booth, and smell them. Watching that, I thought, “Finally! I’m uncomfortable! And I thought this project was going to be a bust!”

That action, paired with the hardcore images, made me think that I should probably prepare myself for anything and everything. Now, this film is much more than a series of shocking episodes, stacked one on top of the other, but in fairly short order we are treated to a scene where Erika retreats to her bathroom at home so that she can slice at her, ahm, area, with a razor blade, and another where she goes to a drive-in and walks around until she finds a couple having sex in the back seat of their car. While spying on them, she starts to urinate. The guy half of the couple having sex sees this and, as any of us would, gets very angry and yells at Erika until she runs off. I can understand the guys anger, but really, if you’re going to have sex in public, people are going to want to watch you while they pee. That’s always been part of the deal.

Eventually, Erika begins a…I guess you’d call it a relationship, with Walter, though it’s a relationship that holds a lot of frustration for the young man. By the end of the film, I had far less sympathy for him than I did when Erika first began her incredibly sadistic tease, because it turns out that he’s kind of a scumbag. But we don’t know that at first, and initially I could share his frustration at being strung along by Erika, until the scene where she finally, and meekly, shares with him a list of violently masochistic desires she has – she would like to punched a lot, for one thing – that would, one hopes, give any man pause. Except that it’s at this point that my sympathies more or less completely shifted to Erika, who up to this point had seemed cold and mean and frightening, because she suddenly becomes shy and fearful of rejection, not to mention deeply embarrassed by her own desires, yet hopeful that Walter will understand. Well, he doesn’t. And he’s not kind in letting her know that. This long series of scenes ends with the film’s biggest shock (even though it’s not graphic, it’s still a corker), one which devastates Erika and makes her desperation for Walter so great that she follows him to hockey practice and promises him everything he could want from her. Though he claims he’s disgusted by her, he’s willing to use her neediness to get sex from her, an act of vicious selfishness that leads to this charming bit of dialogue, delivered by Walter: “You should wash your mouth out more, not just when my cock makes you puke.”

Boy, how many times have I had to say that in my life!? Also, spoiler alert.

So, shocked I indeed was by the first film in my triple feature. But I was also – and not to change tones too suddenly, I hope – quite moved by Huppert, who, despite the film’s extreme subject matter, is actually amazingly quiet in her brilliance here. And Haneke shoots it all in his typically cold style, moving his camera to a distance just far enough back to allow us to see all the little details of Erika’s life, the things that sum her up, even though you still can’t really explain her.
End of Part One. This will not, as I previously claimed, be one long post, but rather three longish posts, because otherwise no one would finish. Plus, I would have run out of steam by the end, and my writing would have suffered, and nobody wants that. And let's not forget that by splitting this into three parts will raise my post count, which for some reason I seem to care about. Anyway, now we all have an opportunity to visit loved ones, maybe get something to eat, and ultimately regroup before settling down to deal with Inside. And boy do I ever have an opinion on that one. Stay tuned.


Krauthammer said...

This is going to be the best day.

I usually have a bad sense of how I'll react viscerally to a movie. If I had a couple of hours of free time and a copy of Salo right here right now, I'd probably just turn it on. But then I remember that I had to turn my head away from some of the scenes from The Tin Drum which didn't have nearly the reputation. Hell, I stopped reading your summery when it got too dicey.

Since you seem to know more about Haneke than me, do you have any idea what the best place to start is? I know nothing about him except that he tends to annoy me in interviews, but a lot of my favorite directors come off a dicks in public, so who knows.

bill r. said...

The Seventh Continent is, I think, pretty incredible. Try to go in cold, be prepared to call your loved ones afterwards.

You also can't go wrong with Code Unknown, which is a fascinating and complex movie told almost like a series of short stories.

And I didn't turn away! Not once during any of these films! And, quite frankly, I regret that, but still! I'm made of steel!

Part two won't go up until later tonight, and part three will go up early Sunday, just so everyone knows.

Ed Howard said...

Great writeup Bill. What I love about this film is exactly the subtle way its tone changes throughout, and the way Haneke manipulates our feelings about Erika, who seems by turns viciously cruel and kind of pathetic and pitiful.

My favorite Haneke is Cache, which I'd also recommend as a good place to start. Really, though, I think pretty much all his films are at least worth seeing, and the only one I could do without is Funny Games.

bill r. said...

So Ed, have you seen The Seventh Continent? I've never met anyone, on-line or otherwise, who's seen it.

Ed Howard said...

I've seen it Bill. I still need to catch up with Haneke's TV work and his US remake of Funny Games but otherwise I've seen all his films. I don't regard The Seventh Continent quite as highly as you do, though it's certainly interesting (and harrowing). It's my favorite of his early films, though favorite seems like an especially odd choice of words in talking about that one. There are images from it that are just seared in my brain, especially the money going down the toilet.

In general, though, I prefer his more recent work which seems so much more nuanced and complex. The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are, to me, kin of Funny Games, in that they're tightly constricted formalist journeys towards this inevitable destination of ruin and destruction, very hopeless films, pretty much cries of despair at the condition of world. In his more recent films, you can see him offering more opportunities for free will, more openness, and even if his characters still head towards destruction, you can see that the journey is no longer this rigid straight line with no escape, that there were paths branching off along the way that the characters simply chose not to take. All his films deal with the way people live and die in a cruelly capitalist world, but his recent films (especially the great Cache and Time of the Wolf) seem so much less didactic about it.

Patricia Perry said...

This movie disturbed me greatly,but it also increased my appreciation of Isabelle Huppert. Her performance is so brave. She goes to such dark places with the character and does it so unflinchingly.

bill r. said...

Ed - Well, The Seventh Continent really did a number on me, to the point that when it was over I had to watch the DVD extras just to distance myself from what I'd just seen. And what is it about that shot of the money?? It's so disturbing, but why? Haneke -- who I think in interviews comes off as very obnoxious -- would probably claim it's some sort of middle finger to capitalism, but that's not it for me. Anyway, Continent is the Haneke film that got to me the most, so far.

Have you not seen The Castle? And, either way, have you read Kafka's novel? Haneke's acknowledgement of the fact that the novel was left unfinished is almost funny, and weirdly powerful.

Pat - I hope I got across in this post how much I admire what Huppert does in this film. It's not just that the performance is brave, although it is, but more that she's just really, really, really good. I can't think of another actress who would play this role so quietly. She deserves all the praise she got for this.

Ed Howard said...

I agree with you about Haneke in interviews: he always seem to be sneering and rather condescending. I think the money shot (so to speak) is so disturbing because it is a gesture of such incredible hopelessness, a gesture of giving up on life in modern society. Once you've flushed all your family's money away, there's no going back, no way to exist in society without it. So yes, it's disturbing because of the emphasis on money in capitalist culture, the impression we have that deliberately throwing away money like that is a subversive and possibly insane act. This is why it was so disturbing when The KLF burned a million British pounds as an art event: it's such an inherently irrational or even anti-rational act.

Anyway, it's definitely a powerful film, though I still think the recent stuff is much more complex and multi-layered.

I haven't seen The Castle yet, I'll have to check it out soon. Haneke and Kafka are a very good match.

bill r. said...

I think the money shot (so to speak) is so disturbing because it is a gesture of such incredible hopelessness, a gesture of giving up on life in modern society. Once you've flushed all your family's money away, there's no going back, no way to exist in society without it.

Good call, and also, if memory serves, the shot lasts a very long time. There's a kind of relentless quality to it.