To say that the Piano Teacher is a psychological study of an unmarried woman in her 40s, is a bit like saying that The Exorcist is a film about a difficult little girl. While literally true, it doesn’t quite do its subject justice. Isabelle Huppert, who was so insanely hot in 1980 that it’s easy to see why Michael Cimino wasted 44 million dollars on Heaven’s Gate just for the outside chance of getting her on the casting couch, plays Erika Kohrut, a professor of music at a renowned conservatory in Vienna. It’s 2001. Isabelle Huppert is still quite attractive, but in such a severe, regal, ultimately twisted way that her expressive, if tortured visage becomes a statement on the perversity lurking beneath the beauty of European high culture.
The film opens with Erika coming home to her apartment. An older woman blocks her way. It’s her mother, a domineering narcissist played by the late Annie Girardot. “Where have you been?” she demands of her 40-something daughter as if she were a teenage girl. Erika seems reluctant to talk. She makes excuses. She lies, but, after her mother reaches into her bag and pulls out a yellow frock, we realize that she’s been shopping for clothes, something her mother disapproves of, although neither is short of money. They struggle. The dress is torn in half. Erica attacks her mother, slapping her across the head again and again in a rage. Later, in bed — Mother and daughter sleep in the same bed — she breaks down and apologizes, sobbing with regret and telling the older woman how much she loves her.
Erika brings her sadomasochistic personality to work, although, being cultured and elegant, high functioning, or, better yet, high status, her cruelty is mistaken for an uncompromising devotion to her art. Eric doesn’t tolerate fools easily. She doesn’t tolerate anybody easily, driving Anna Schober, a promising young student, so hard, the poor young woman spends most of her time in the conservatory on the edge of a nervous breakdown. One day, at a recital, she meets a handsome young man named Walter Klemmer, a gifted pianist, who, upon meeting Erica, falls so in love with her that he decides to give up his engineering studies and pursue music full time. Klemmer is supposed to be 17 in the film, but, since he’s played by the 27-year-old Benoît Magimel, this is not the kind of relationship that makes the tabloids, or the police blotter. Klemmer is a vital, passionate, if somewhat arrogant young man determined to crack the mystery that is Erika Kohrut, the legendary dragon lady. Erika is initially resistant, but Klemmer is not only determined, he’s her match culturally. After she mentions Theodor Adorno’s discussion of how a piece by Franz Schubert expresses what it’s like to be on the edge of insanity, a piece Klemmer immediately recognizes Erika deeply identifies with, he sits down at the piano and plays it effortlessly, his mastery of the difficult music an indication that if anybody can reach her, he can.
Erika’s perversity, and, ultimately her evil, untouchable soul is a match even for Walter Klemmer. He seduces her in the bathroom of the conservatory. He visits her at home and fucks her after he locks the mother in her bedroom. But Erika will not be fucked out of her madness. She gives him a list of “demands,” the rules of a sadomasochistic role playing game he has to follow if he wants to continue to see her. Klemmer is a strong, resourceful young man, but even he’s a bit overwhelmed by the depths of Erika’s depravity.
We see just how sick Erika’s soul is when the outrageously good looking Klemmer joins her master class at the conservatory. He quickly becomes the focus of some of her young female students. Poor Anna Schober doesn’t even make a play for Klemmer. Between the pressure from her own mother, an ambitious woman who thinks her daughter is too plain to succeed at anything else, and the imposing Erika Kohrut, Anna doesn’t think about anything other than her constantly upset stomach. Nevertheless, all it takes is one gesture of kindness by Klemmer to make her the target of Erika’s wrath.
What Erika does to Anna is a horrifying, yet powerful statement of the wrath of an older woman towards a younger woman, even one so unprepossessing as Anna Schober. Erika’s despicable act says all we have to know about the betrayal of the student, teacher relationship, of her own art. She doesn’t even love Klemmer, so why does she destroy an innocent girl simply because he smiled at her and put his hand on her should to calm her nerves. It’s a vicious deed that fully reflects her perverse relationship with her own mother, a vivid depiction of her mad, damned soul. The Piano Teacher is, perhaps, the strongest expression of evil I’ve seen in quite some time. That the beautiful Isabelle Huppert embodies it so well is a testament to her skill as an actor. The Piano Teacher is not a pleasant experience. But it’s truth.
Just about the only criticism I would make of The Piano Teacher is that there isn’t enough Schubert. It feels like a missed opportunity. After seeing an old recording of Martha Argerich winning the Chopin competition in 1965, I have no doubt that any beautiful woman who could play at the level Erika Kohrut is supposed to be able to play could easily turn me into her slave as easily as she conquered Walter Klemmer. But we never see Isabelle Huppert sit down in front of the piano. The music never really grabbed me. Perhaps that’s the point. In the world of Erika Kohrut, High German classic music is spiritually dead. Schubert and Bach are flat. But you shouldn’t have to be an Erika Kohrut to watch a film about an Erika Kohrut. High brow French filmmakers need to be just a bit more accessible to ignorant Americans like me.