A review of “The Piano Teacher” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: Not Rated, but could be NC-17 for nudity and disturbing sexual practices.  In French with English subtitles.

Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

 

 

An explosive, co-dependent mother-daughter relationship is the backbone of this twisted, disquieting drama about a respected professor at the Vienna Music Conservatory who blows off steam with unorthodox sexual practices.

Erika (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her obsessively controlling mother (Annie Girardot), succumbing to her tyrannical demands with unsettling acquiescence.  At work, Erika is a demanding and spiteful taskmaster, instructing her students with thinly-veiled cruelty. Erika’s hidden agenda is a penchant for unconventional sex, in the form of genital self-mutilation and elaborate acts of voyeurism. 

When Erika falls in “love”, her true colors are revealed.  The object of her affection is the talented, precocious Walter (Benoit Magimel), a promising pianist with a charming smile and a playful attitude.  The fun and games go swiftly south.  In response to her constricted existence, Erika’s carefully constructed façade gives way to a lurid and harrowing dark side that sheds unpleasant light on the concept of deviant behavior.

“The Piano Teacher” is a frustrating exercise in the hormonal detours of human nature. Erika is a nasty piece of work, a sick and bitchy dominatrix wading through oceans of dysfunction.  But director Michael Haneke’s startling vision is cloaked in subtle shades of sadism, masochism, and angst that are as compelling as they are repellent.  Huppert works wonders with a difficult role, embracing her innermost pervert with skillful aplomb.