Perhaps Michael Haneke’s most refined and meaningful piece of work, The Piano Teacher is far from an easy watch. In typical Haneke-style, there is unpredicted physical violence, repression and unanswered questions but all of this comes together to form a majestic yet twisted piece of contemporary European cinema. This take on the melodrama, tells the story of a sexually repressed and sadistic pianist whose affair with one of her pupils leads to destruction, cruelty and turmoil. Inner demons are revealed, characters are broken and as the story caves in around these characters, Haneke brings his masterpiece to a stunning and frustrating conclusion. The Piano Teacher displays Isabelle Huppert like never before. Her performance is both terrifying and beautiful. Huppert, one of European cinema’s most precious talents, has claimed that The Piano Teacher is a simplistic story. A woman meets a man, they begin an affair and it ends badly. This quaint view of the plot is perhaps the best way to approach the film. Haneke sticks to this precise narrative despite the chaos, horror and tension that swarms.
Haneke’s use of the static camera makes this film feel more like a play than a piece of cinema. The minimal camera movement and basic editing style allows the actors to truly perform, controlling the movement of the film. In one particularly intense scene we find the two lovers in a public bathroom, embracing for the first time. The walls are white. This bleakness reflects what has been described as Haneke’s “clinical aesthetic” and creates a blank canvas onto which the story can be released. Where the story is bursting with suffering, horror and hideousness, the settings remain clean and plain. If you’ve seen more than one Michael Haneke film you know that the spectator is forced to endure a certain level of discomfort. The Piano Teacher demonstrates Haneke being as relentless as ever. Long takes make this experience occasionally agonising for his audience. We are expected to struggle and we are commanded to suffer, along with Huppert’s character.
The Piano Teacher was the first example of Haneke’s cinematic elegance; the likes of which have reoccurred in his recent Palme d’Or winners The White Ribbon and Amour. Despite the gruesome avenues that this film explores there is something exquisite about Haneke’s stylisation. Balancing simplicity with shocking, unpredictable moments of horror, Haneke has achieved an art house gem that appears poisonous but appetising. Haneke proves that it is possible to create a melodramatic story, even when you’re dealing with genital mutilation, bodily fluids and sadomasochism. The Piano Teacher will shock and appal you. Even if you disagree with it and take great offence to it, as I am sure many people have, you can not deny the graceful cinematic style that Haneke is bringing to his work. He is a majestic film maker who knows how to control his audience. The Piano Teacher remains, in my mind, his most powerful film to date. Is it possible to find a gleeful satisfaction in a piece of work so accomplished but so riddled with nastiness? Well, Haneke leaves that up to you.
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