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The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste)

A female piano teacher at a prestigious Viennese school lives with her mother in a modest apartment yet is bedeviled by sadomasochist urges, including solitary forays to the local porn parlor, that lead her into an abusive and violent relationship with a handsome young student and to her own self-destruction.


Erika is a gifted pianist in her 40s who teaches at a prestigious music school in Vienna. But her private life is far from gilded. She lives in a cramped apartment with her overbearing mother and secretly visits the local porn parlor to watch hard-core movies. She is also masochistically driven to inflict harm on her own body and to be a Peeping Tom at the local drive-in, where she watches a couple making love in their car. After she reluctantly supports the acceptance of handsome young pianist Walter as a student at the conservatory, they enter a twisted and abusive sadomasochistic relationship, in spite of Walter's apparent genuine love for the older Erika. The piano teacher's pathology is so extreme that she surreptitiously puts cut glass into the coat pocket of another student, who then ruins her playing hand when she thrusts it into the pocket. This disturbed and sadistic heroine's despicable and graphic behavior resonates way beyond the film's wonderful music and great performances, bringing down what would otherwise be a quality movie.


Isabelle Huppert, one of France's greatest and most prolific film actresses, is extraordinary in what can only be described as an extraordinarily challenging role. She gives a terrific and convincing performance, as does Benoit Magimel as the handsome young piano student who falls under her diabolic spell and into her sick and manipulative web of erotic shenanigans. An intense turn from French legend Annie Girardot as Huppert's controlling mother is also top-notch.


German director Michael Haneke does a fine and convincing job directing the peculiar goings-on but must also take the rap as having anointed himself the adapter of this strange novel by Elfriede Jelinek. Haneke directs his actors convincingly and intriguingly and his adaptation also convinces, more thanks to the actors than to direction or the underlying material. Haneke's evocation of the world of classical music and training, including a soundtrack rich in the music of such masters as Schubert, Bach and Beethoven and shots of musicians performing these beloved works, is effective, especially as counterpoint to the far-from-lofty teacher who is an ironic cog in this sublime process.

Bottom Line

This cinematic oddity may have bagged several of the top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, but its themes of sexual violence and self-destruction make it a strange and off-putting tale.