The Piano Teacher (2001)

An intense, unsettling, and unforgettable psychological drama of a deeply troubled woman that deals with dark desires and repression


7/20/20234 min read

Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel in 'The Piano Teacher'
Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel in 'The Piano Teacher'

French, German,

130 minutes, 2001

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot

Awards: Nominated for ‘Palme d’Or’ and Won Best Director, Best actress and Best film (The Grand Prix), Cannes Film Festival, 2001; Best Actress at European Film Awards, 2001; Best Supporting actress (Annie Girardot) at Cesar Awards, 2001; Nominated for ‘Best film not in English language’, British Academy Film Awards, 2002.

The Piano teacher can be aptly described as a strange, sexed-psychological drama based on a 1993 novel of the same name written by Austrian writer, Elfriede Jelinek, who later won Nobel prize for literature in 2004. The film too won numerous awards at all prominent festivals including Cannes Film festival in 2001.

The story revolves around an uptight, middle aged, Piano teacher at the prestigious Venice conservatory (A school engaged in training and research of music), Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) who is demanding, strict and sometimes downright mean. Erika is quite a study in herself. Beneath her seemingly composed exterior lies a tormented soul, stifled by her mother's constant scrutiny and crippled by her own repressed emotions. She doesn’t wear make-up, displays sadomasochistic traits, visits porn video parlours- not in secrecy but openly in front of other males, draws voyeuristic pleasure spying on love making couples at drive-in-theatre, mutilates her vagina with blade and harbours intentions of having violent sex.

She is unmarried and lives with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot) who constantly wants to monitor her every move. The repression of her sexual desires is rearing to find outlet. This happens at a piano recital organised by the Blonskij couple where she plays piano. Lady Blonskij’s nephew, a young engineering student, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), who himself plays piano is enamored by Erica’s recital and is attracted towards the accomplished piano professor. After her performance, during break, Walter and Erica discuss piano recitals, Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. He deeply appreciates her recital and her commitment to music. After Break, Walter plays Schubert’s “Scherzo from Sonata in A major”. Erica, though doesn’t express, but admires his piano recital.

Soon he applies to learn music under her at the conservatory. He impresses other evaluators with his piano recital but Erica rejects him citing different interpretation and his motivation. Yet he is admitted to her class. Another student of her, Anna gets jittery before a rehearsal and Walter comforts her. Seeing Walter with Anna, Erica slips glass shards inside her coat clandestinely and returns to the rehearsal. Anna’s hands suffer cuts after the recital and Walter senses that it is Erica’s doing and the reason behind her act. She leaves and Walter follows her to restroom. They have a sexual encounter where Erica wants him to obey her, gives him a handjob but stops midway when he disobeys her. Their relationship takes a dark turn, as it becomes a disturbing dance of power and submission.

She writes him a letter about how she wants her next meeting with him. In the letter, which is read by Walter in her room under unexpected circumstances, she has written in detail about how she wants to be treated during sex. She fantasizes to be bonded, gagged and forced during the act. Walter is aghast and leaves telling her she is sick and needs treatment. Erica, later, hunts him down at an ice-hockey stadium and after his match, attempts to have sex in the janitor’s room which ends in failure.

Angry Walter returns at night to her apartment and abuses her, hits her and rapes her as she had requested in her letter. This encounter ends Erica’s infatuation with Walter and without giving spoilers, I can say story ends entirely on a different note.

Michael Haneke excels at unsettling the audience building tension and discomfort almost at regular intervals. Haneke refuses to provide easy explanations, leaving viewers to grapple with the complex psychology of his characters. Huppert's portrayal of Erica is nothing short of astonishing. She embodies Erika's inner turmoil with such depth and nuance that it's almost painful to watch. She has done such perverted roles earlier too like a nymphomaniac nun in ‘Amateur’ and a manic and homicidal post-office worker in ‘La Cérémonie’ but her portrayal of Erica stands out.

About the Director, Michael Haneke

Born in March, 1942 in Munich, Germany, Michael is an Austrian screenplay writer and director who is among the few directors who has won Palme d’Or twice, first for ‘The White Ribbon’ (2009) and next for ‘Amour’ (2012).

Born in a film family of actress mother and actor- director father, Michael was earlier interested in literature and music but later wanted to be an actor. However, the plans were changed and he took admission in University of Vienna to study psychology, drama and philosophy. After passing out he started working in television industry.

His first feature film was ‘The Seventh Continent’ (1989), a film which shows last days of a family who, though put up a normal façade in front of society, has decided to do something horrible. His second feature, ‘Benny’s Video’ (1992) revolves around a boy, Benny, who has fascination for video images and camera. He invites a girl and kills her, also filming the act. Both the films are dark and reveal the cinema of Heneke. ‘The Piano Teacher’ too confirms to the set pattern of dark and uncomfortable films made by him.

All of his films have won awards and were exhibited in some or the other film festivals around the world. His debut film too has won ‘The Bronze Leapard’ at Locarno Film Festival, 1989. As mentioned earlier, he is among the few directors who has won Palme d’Or twice, first for ‘The White Ribbon’ (2009) and next for ‘Amour’ (2012). His latest feature is ’Happy End’ made in 2017.