'The Piano Teacher': Unraveling Chords

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 24, 2002

Isabelle Huppert delivers a taut, quietly explosive performance in "The Piano Teacher," Michael Haneke's harrowing cinematic portrait of a woman coming unhinged.

Erika Kohut (Huppert) lives with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot) in Vienna, where she teaches piano at a conservatory. The locale is not accidental: As we observe Erika's tangled relationship with her mother lead to furtive and increasingly destructive acts of self-loathing and rage, "The Piano Teacher" seems less like a fictional story than a tour through Freud's forgotten files.

Erika lives a life of severity and control, but underneath she seethes with transgressive passions: Standing like a well-groomed martinet over her students, she seems to be willing them to fail. As she begins to explore the dark side of her sexuality (sex shops, self-mutilation, a dangerous affair with a young musician), her exploits take on the desperation of a woman trying to expunge desire altogether.

In the tradition of "Repulsion," "Belle de Jour" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "The Piano Teacher" creates a hermetic, frightening world, and Huppert delivers a courageous performance as the woman around whom it ultimately falls apart.

The last major film Michael Haneke directed was "Funny Games," a study of claustrophobia and sadism that was thoroughly unlikable but proved a fitting prelude to "The Piano Teacher." Haneke, who adapted this film from Elfriede Jelinek's novel, has clearly mastered the art of balancing on the knife edge between carefully structured drama and terrifying chaos. What's more, he's a compassionate chronicler of Erika's suffering, which begins by expressing itself in small acts of rebellion and ends in a final, inevitably tragic gesture.

THE PIANO TEACHER (NR, 90 minutes) ¿ Contains strong sexual material.In French with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge and Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company