Please note: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
The release of Happy End this week marks the fourth collaboration between European arthouse darlings Isabelle Huppert and Michael Haneke. This auspicious release prompts a look back at their first film together, The Piano Teacher.
Huppert plays the lead role of Erica, a repressed forty-something piano teacher who still lives with her mother. Before the title screen, we see how sour this mother-daughter relationship has become. Erica’s mother is controlling, and Erica herself isn’t afraid to respond with physical violence. The unusually dark flat they share reflects the enigmatic bleakness of their relationship. Over the course of the film, we learn that Erica harbours sadomasochistic tendencies, which manifest themselves in a number of ways, ranging from voyeurism to self-mutilation. These desires bleed into her teaching style. In one memorable scene, Erica humiliates a male student she spotted on one of her frequent trips to a sex shop.
One evening Erica meets a rich engineering student named Walter Klemmer at a private recital. He’s the kind of young man who is all too aware of how cultured he is. Immediately it is apparent that the handsome young man is interested in her, and while Erica behaves coolly to him, she too is intrigued. After the recital, Walter continues to pursue Erica, even auditioning at the exclusive academy where she teaches. Despite showing obvious talent at the piano, Erica tries to reject his application.
Nevertheless, Walter is accepted, and attends the rehearsal for an upcoming performance, where Anna, one of Erica’s students, becomes overwhelmed with stage fright. When Walter comforts her, Erica’s allows herself to be consumed by jealousy. While Anna is playing, Erica slinks away to the cloak room and hides shards of glass in Anna’s coat pocket. When Anna eventually cuts her hand, jeopardising her career as a pianist, Erica retreats to the toilets. Walter, who realises what’s happened, pursues Erica into the bathroom where the sexual tension boils over into an odd encounter.
The location of a public toilet is significant because of its grubby connotations, which are amplified by the sexually explicit nature of the scene. Yet this dirtiness is mollified by a pervasive bourgeois milieu. The bathroom is a pristine white and the stalls have shiny brass door handles. A grubby lavatory this is not. Such cleanliness provides an eerie backdrop for a scene where a woman jerks off a younger man. The border between sexless polish and debased filth is made uncomfortably porous, and reflects Erica’s character.
She attends posh recitals and seedy sex shops as though there was no difference between the two. The disquieting mixture of middle-class propriety and base desire is also evident in the actions of the two characters. Walter is a conventional lover. He tries to embrace Erica, and is generally more romantic. His advances are rebuffed by Erica, who makes it clear that she seeks degradation.
She refuses to let Walter come and maintains her cool demeanour. Here, an inversion of conventional assumptions takes place. Erica seeks control in the scene and sets the boundaries, while the romantic Walter, with his unwanted embraces, tries to violate them. The danger lies not in Erica’s desires, but Walter’s.
Erica seeks satisfaction through disempowerment, but in her pursuit of that ideal she has to maintain total control over Walter. She writes him a list of instructions on how bind, gag and beat her, all of which must be performed while her mother is in the next room. At first, Walter is disgusted and refuses to do it, but in the climactic scene he forces his way into Erica’s home, locks her mother in Erica’s room, and rapes her. Walter does not transform into the kind of monster we expect, nor the one that Erica wanted him to be. He is awkward and doesn’t stick to the script Erica had written. She wanted it to happen in her well-lit room with the cupboard blocking the door. Instead, Walter does the opposite, locking the mother in the bedroom, and raping Erica in the hallway. Erica’s instructions were highly specific, and we witness how Walter’s actions deviate from that script. The scene ends with Walter sheepishly leaving off-screen while the camera dwells on Erica’s bloodied face. It’s a devastating moment, because her desires have been perverted and used against her.
It’s easy to see Erica’s desires as a way for her to retake control of her life, away from her domineering mother. However, this ignores a gaping hole in The Piano Teacher left by Erica’s father. His absence is keenly felt throughout the film. He is mentioned in Walter and Erica’s first conversation. She reveals that he died mad in an asylum, just like one of her favourite composers Robert Schumann. Both Walter, and the mother, brand Erica as mad at points in the film, suggesting that there is something hereditary lurking in Erica’s mind.
The father is mentioned again just before the toilet scene, when Erica’s mother informs her of his death, contradicting what Erica had told Walter. Erica’s back is to the camera when she hears this, and the film makes a sudden cut to the next scene. Throughout The Piano Teacher, prolonged close-ups of Erica’s face chart her expressions, usually when she is listening to music. Yet, when informed of this life-changing event, the film denies us her reaction.This omission leaves an empty space in the film, which alters the way we see the rest of the action. We are made aware of the absence through that sudden cut, and coupled with Erica’s lie about his death, it’s that there is an unspeakable element in this story, and it involves the father.
The role the mother plays in Erica’s highly specific fantasy hint at what that element may be. The mother must be made aware of what is happening to the daughter, and must be powerless to stop it. The specificity of the fantasy suggest that it is more than pleasure which Erica seeks. What that something means is left just outside of the audience’s grasp and never truly leaves Erica’s head. No matter what it is, Erica is unable to get what she wants from Walter, and he ends up hurting her.
The film ends just as Erica is about to perform at the recital, taking Anna’s place. She brings a knife and waits for Walter, presumably to wreak revenge. But when she sees him, and the way he treats her as though nothing has happened, she stops. Left alone in the foyer, Erica takes the knife and stabs herself in the chest. The film ends with her leaving the concert hall, as the audience await her performance. In a film that graphically depicts self-harm, it is the cavalier way Walter treats Erica in this scene that disturbs the most. Surrounded by his middle-class family, he maintains a façade of bland politeness. By stabbing herself, Erica performs the ultimate act of defiance and attempts to escape this temple of bourgeois hypocrisy.