A demanding and high-strung mother, a devoted artist in a classical field, plus a tinge of sanity-driven passion—these are the components of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film, The Piano Teacher (La pianiste 2001), which features Isabelle Hupert as Erika Kohut, a piano tutor at Vienna Conservatory.
I think a comparison between Black Swan (2010) and The Piano Teacher is indispensable. There, we see Nina’s (Natalie Portman) world through her own eyes; that is, the film presents Nina’s mentality itself, and the reality that she shakily clings to is entirely filtered through her perception. Everything—even though insane—is thus made understandable. The twisted paintings on the wall that murmur to her repeatedly, “Sweet girl, sweet girl”; the rash on her skin; the unbreakable toes—hallucinations we may call them, but we readily accept these images, and naturally in the end when she stabs herself/her imaginary counterpart (in the guise of Mila Kunis’s Lily) in the stomach with a piece of broken glass, we are not particularly surprised. But in The Piano Teacher, we are never certain if Erika is out of her mind. Indeed Walter (Benoît Magimel) comments at one point, “You’re mad, you need treatment.” And yet the audience at the same time are somehow convinced that Erika is only seeking the utmost fulfillment of her sexual desires, akin to Fifty Shades of Grey (2015); I mean, what’s so shocking about another BDSM plot, right?
But it’s completely different. The Piano Teacher is arousing for sure, but it almost turns you on in a way that makes you wonder if you are as sick as Erika.
What makes The Piano Teacher so uncomfortably stunning? I’d say the naturalistic elements, devoid of sentimental romanticism. Both female figures living with their overprotective mothers, Nina shares her every daily moment with her mother—breakfast, morning stretch routine, happenings in the ballet company, and so on—and Erika does basically the same. I notice a certain nervous balance that the two girls strike with their mothers: the absence of a father figure in the house might have something to do with it.
The mothers are both fans and controllers of their daughters. Nina is even assigned the task of masturbation, a proof that she doesn’t know anything about her own body, her own sexual desires, while Erika leads a secret life of mutilation. At the tub she sits on the edge and slices through her genitals with a sharp knife. This is what she believes to be the closest thing to the feeling of orgasm. Right after this scene, Erika’s mother calls out from the living room; instantly, a juxtaposition of self and other both blurs the line dividing them and highlights the leash her mother has her on.
As for why the daughters are set up as performing artist types? Perhaps the general public has an obsession with the mystery behind those who take classical music and ballet as their professions.