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Book Review: The Piano Teacher (2001)

 

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”Love, love, love -- all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures, a welter of self-induced miseries and joys, blinding and masking the essential personalities in the frozen gestures of courtship.”

So said Germaine Greer, who understood that feminine masochism, finds situation in the most banal performances of love and sex, in the forms of pretence, with holding, strategy and performance. The Piano Teacher strips away the facade; in its infamous scene, Erika Kohat (Isabelle Huppert) sits over a bath and slices her vagina with a razor, reminiscent of Ingrid Thulin’s Karin, in Bergman’s earlier, Cries and Whispers. It is a knowing homage. Erika and Karin are both women made fraught by the repression of their sexualities as a result of high status, re(con)finement and patriarchal restrictions on female sexuality. Which is a more heroic way of middle fingering society’s expectations of the feminine coquette? To knife at your vagina in an act of private, erotic release, or to demonstrate your masochism for an abhorring voyeur?

What is radical about Erika Kohut (borne of Elfriede Jelink’s novel) is that she is never romantic or coquettish, though she is certainly repressed. A nearing middle aged piano teacher at a Viennese music conservatory, she lives with her domineering and jealous mother (Annie Girardot) who marks her comings and goings and attempts to prevent her from socialising, or wearing ‘ostentatious’ clothing. Is it because she has poured her whole self into her daughter and now only has her with whom to neurotically engage? Or does she wish to protect her musical genius from the whips, chains and destructive distractions of engagement with the opposite sex?

Kohut conducts private revolts. As well as her hidden razor, she attends porn booths to sniff the semen soaked rags, she wanders around outdoor cinemas to look in at young lovers rutting in the back seat. When a student lothario Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) makes a persistent play for Kohut’s attention, she eventually spies an opportunity to find a partner in perversion.

His insatiable thirst for the standard romance of ‘man takes woman’ is confronted by her insistence on being beaten, tied and tortured, whilst with holding herself conventionally. It was not the form of sexual dominance Klemmer had in mind and in any case, the dominance she offers him is shallow. As with any secretly controlling submissive she tries to rule from the bottom. She refuses him what he wants and draws up detailed lists of what she wants instead, to his pious chagrin. There is nothing sexy about this hellbent courtship.

In The Piano Teacher, Haneke implores us to ogle, with prurience, at the real dynamics of destructive romance without any of the glamourised sentiment of other BDSM flicks, such as Fifty Shades of Grey or even Secretary. Though the film is not necessarily a moral testament against fetish formed sexualities, it is an examination of the ways in which plays of dominance and submission weave themselves into the tapestry of human relationships. The film is less of a critique of BDSM as such, but rather a utilization of the motifs of this eroticised game playing in order to draw attention, as Greer’s quote suggests, to the fissures and disturbances in sexual and romantic equity that are hidden under the banner of ‘respectable’ romance.

Though Kohuts perversions begin as an empowered revolt, from her mother and from Klemmer, her very liberation thrusts her out to sea. The film challenges us to wonder, if the world formulates femininity to be essentially giving, and giving in, to what extent can a woman both liberate herself and allow herself to love?

Written by Rae Story.


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