Monday, April 20, 2009

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Homework, you know the drill.

In The Piano Teacher (2001), Haneke comments on how gender affects dominance and desire in a relationship. Walter (BenoƮt Magimel ) wants a relationship with his piano teacher, Erika (Isabelle Huppert), and pursues her adamantly. Initially, it seems as if Walter will be the dominant force in the relationship, but their interactions are not as simple as that. During their first sexual encounter, in the bathroom of the music hall, Erika seems to take charge, ordering Walter not to move or even speak. Even though she seems to be dominative in the encounter, she assumes a submissive position on her knees in performing oral sex. When he resists her domination, she punishes him by not allowing him to orgasm until he agrees to comply to her wishes. In showing this, Haneke demonstrates that their relationship will be a power struggle that revolves around the fulfilling of sexual desires.

Early on in the film, Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant when she smells a used tissue in a pornography arcade/shop. Another instance in which her deviance is demonstrated is at the drive-in theater as she urinates while watching another couple have sex. Instances such as these happen throughout the film, and escalate in aberrance to the point where Erika initiates unsolicited sexual contact with her mother. Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant in order to highlight the difference between her and Walter’s desires. In the film, Erika asks Walter to perform a very specific list of sexual tasks including bondage and other masochistic acts. In doing so, she is really displaying a type of dominance over Walter, always telling him how to command her. However, just as in the bathroom scene, Walter resists Erika’s desires. In denying Erika the gratification she seeks, Walter is also denying himself sex with her. Ultimately, however, Walter rapes Erika, both denying her of her desires while fulfilling his own.

The Piano Teacher suggests that in today’s society, only masculine desires are achieved. Erika’s wishes represent stereotypically feminine desires and female sexual gratification, while Walter’s wishes represent masculine desires. This is not to say that female desires include Erika’s deviations; Haneke uses this deviance to exaggerate the differences between Erika’s and Walter’s desires. While The Piano Teacher is often read as misogynistic, perhaps it should be read as a criticism of misogyny. Just as Funny Games (1997) has violence and is a criticism of violent films, The Piano Teacher both contains and criticizes misogyny.

There is little nudity in the film considering the substantial amount of sexual content. Whenever Erika and Walter have sex, they are almost fully clothed. In one scene, Walter is even wearing a hockey uniform. Also, and perhaps because of this, none of the sex scenes are erotic. Instead of titillating his audience, which is exactly what would be expected with such a sexual film, Haneke bores them with mundane sex scenes. In doing so, Haneke suggests that sexual gratification is not being reached for Erika. In a less mundane scene, Walter runs and jumps around giddily after having sex with Erika in the bathroom, suggesting that his desires have been met. Erika however, is seemingly never pleasured even during her own deviant endeavors; her desires,(representing female desires), are not met while Walter’s, (representing male desires), are fulfilled.

The Piano Teacher is a decent, compelling and entertaining film with strong acting. It is provocative and will make you think twice about the nature of desire.

Grade: B+


steven said...

Are you taking a class that studies Haneke? Sign me up!

Mitch said...

Yeah! ENGL 239: Film Directors with Marco Abel. We are studying Godard, Fassbinder, Haneke, and Claire Denis. I would highly recommend it.

steven said...

Oh, boy! I want! Do they repeat directors? I would assume not. But that sure is a powerhouse of directors.