Posted February 20, 2010 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Piano Teacher: Not a Masterpiece, But Interesting and Compelling

Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” which took second prize at Cannes in 2001, tells the story of a woman who is a tyrannical piano instructor by day and a denizen of porn stores by night. She is also a masochist, begging her handsome and talented new student to hit, strangle and dominate her.

Haneke’s direction is firm, formally excellent, visually gorgeous, and pitiless in its depiction of human frailty. Many sequences in the film are so arresting and blunt that they are almost frightening.

I love the basic idea of the film, which is to probe into the layers of disappointment and hope that lead ordinary people to mistreat one another and invest erotic attraction with antagonism. But Haneke doesn’t go very deep in his exploration, and neither does Isabelle Huppert, the lead actress. They remain fairly aloof from the main character’s suffering and desire. Thus we don’t go too much further than watching from across the room as she jousts with those around her.

When the jousting becomes sexual, the film becomes particularly tedious. Watching sado-masochists do their business is about as engaging as watching someone urinate on himself. I kept waiting for more depth in this slightly overlong film (2 hours and 10 minutes) and was left somewhat dissatisfied. Yet the strengths of “The Piano Teacher” are numerous and significant enough that any serious cinephile will find plenty to marvel at here.

Haneke reminds me of his fellow European auteur Lars von Trier. Neither is a great artist, but both consistently probe human weakness in unique and powerful ways. I consider them two of the most important and genuinely artistic filmmakers working today.

(Haneke’s most recent film, “The White Ribbon,” incidentally, is not to be missed. It will likely be thought of in years to come as his best film. It took the top prize at Cannes and is now the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2009.)

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.