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The Piano Teacher


It’s not easy to describe The Piano Teacher, actually, it’s just as hard to interpret. I watched it the other night and have been racking my brain to figure out an appropriate review for it. One thing I am certain of is that The Piano Teacher is a descent into madness. It is an excruciatingly real and often uncomfortably voyeuristic view into the mind of a woman who can see the oblivion of a degenerative sanity that she is sure to face and completely helpless to stop.

The woman in question is Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), who teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory and takes out all of her frustrations on her pupils by day. At night, she slinks into the world of perversion, often going to the local porn shop to smell the discarded tissues left behind in the boothes. Erika lives with her mother (Annie Girardot), who is domineering and obsessively nosy. There she soaks up abuse like it is a salve. At night, they share a bed together so the mother always knows where Erika is, and if there is a time when she is gone past her regular schedule, the mother calls every few minutes to keep some semblance of control. Erika’s father is in an asylum, and we never meet him. The likelihood of heredity being part of the cause for her mental illness seems apparent, and the constant abuse from her mother only makes her collapse all the more probable. Erika is obsessed with Franz Schubert, who wrote a sonata about a man who sees the brink of his own sanity and can only watch helplessly as he loses his mind. Furthering my opinion that Erika is aware of what is happening to her.

Enter the young and charismatic Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a young engineering student with a flair for the piano. After seeing Erika at a recital, Walter becomes immediately obsessed and quickly tries to seduce her. Little does Walter know that getting to know Erica is the same as opening a Pandora’s box. I am loath to tell any more of the story than this because the shock value of what happens is what gives the film its edge.

There are many different interpretations of The Piano Teacher. Many of them see this as a tale of sexual repression, self-mutilation, S&M, and morbid erotic obsession. I personally think those are just the by-products of Erika’s impending loss of sanity. Part of the reasoning behind the different interpretations might be because there are two versions: the rated R version and the unrated version. The unrated version shows explicit scenes of self-mutilation and pornography. Regardless of how it is interpreted, it is not a movie for the easily offended or the prudish by nature. Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of a woman on the brink is absolutely phenomenal. I cannot, for the life of me, see any of the contemporary actresses from America doing the role any justice. Annie Girardot’s role as the somewhat insane mother is noteworthy as well. The ending of the film is of the type that causes great debate. It just ends. It cuts off at a point where we are robbed of any closure or follow through. There is no way of knowing what happens to Erika specifically, but we do know that she is lost. I would say that the only person to know what is going through Erika’s mind at the end is Erika herself…and she’s not telling.