The Piano Teacher Review

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to find in the interview with Michael Haneke on this DVD release of The Piano Teacher, that Pier Pasolini’s Salò has had a profound effect on the director. Haneke is well known for his violent and extreme films that seem to be designed to provoke an extreme reaction, populated by self-destructive and violent characters who react against the morality and conventions of modern society. Often however these films, such 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, Benny’s Video and Code Unknown, come across as cold, impersonal examinations of models of society, rather than showing anything really human. While the subject matter touched on in The Piano Teacher remains extreme and provocative and retains Haneke's trademark impassive style - albeit working in a more traditional narrative framework - the director has found in Elfriede Jelinek's novel the perfect material for his technique to bring out the horrifying complexities and depths of human behaviour.

Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, an apparently very straight-laced, strict and harsh piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, who lives with her tyrannical and domineering mother (Annie Girardot). Behind the apparent ascetic façade however, Erika indulges a fascination for pornography, voyeurism and sadomasochism and when a promising young student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) attempts to seduce her, her desires set off an explosive and shocking series of events.

Scenes, regardless of their content are filmed with the same dispassionate objectivity - not indiscriminately nor deliberately to provoke a reaction, but because they are essential to convey the essence of the characters and their circumstances. In The Piano Teacher, extreme and controversial images of pornography and genital self-mutilation are graphically but carefully depicted to have the maximum effect on the viewer. Nothing here feels manipulative, exploitative or unnecessary – which is not always something you could say about earlier Haneke films.

There is no question that Haneke is one of the finest and most important director’s working in cinema today – drawing out exceptional performances from actors, while providing challenging material and ideas. Whereas in earlier films like 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance or Code Unknown the director seemed willing to go to extreme lengths merely to challenge critics and viewers alike, this time around a strong literary source (Elfriede Jelinek’s powerful novel) and some brilliant performances give the film a emotional intensity that is in balance with the story. Are the characters credible? Are their actions and motivations plausible? Haneke wants to push the characters beyond the limits of accepted motivation and action/reaction, confounding expectations we might have about “normal” human behaviour.

Isabelle Huppert’s performance in the film is remarkable. It is hard to imagine another actress capable of playing such a role, and she is more than worthy of the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival 2001. The film also won the Best Actor award for Benoît Magimel and the 2001 Grand Prix.

Picture quality is very good. An occasional dust spot can be seen, but really the transfer could hardly be better. The use of real locations instead of a controlled studio environment and the use of natural light give the film a grainy image. Occasionally some digital artefacts can be seen where the transfer has trouble holding together the shifting grain in the picture, but this is only noticeable when examined closely. Otherwise, in spite of the conditions it was shot under, the image is sharp, clear and strongly coloured. Subtitles are clear at all times and removable.

Haneke is not a director to let sound surround you and distract from the action on the screen so, much like the sound mix on Code Unknown, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is predominately focussed on the centre speaker. It is a clear, bright and functional mix that crackles rarely on loud musical passages. A Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is also provided, but doesn’t pack the same punch as the 5.1 mix.

The dialogue for the film is in French, which is strange for a film set in Vienna. Although all the principal actors are French, the Austrian actors in the film appear to have been dubbed into French also and they watch French television. I find this an unusual choice for a director who places such importance on realism in his films.


Commentary by Isabelle Huppert (48.16)
Isabelle Huppert offers her interpretations of selected scenes from the film, and what she was trying to convey. The commentary is in French, with optional English subtitles. When she no longer has a comment to make on a certain scene she is prompted by an interviewer with banal questions and observations. The commentary and points the actress makes are interesting, as she is not constrained by the length of the scene as she would be with a traditional commentary track. When she has more to say about a scene it is repeated to allow her to finish what she was saying.

Behind The Scenes: Post-synchronisation Session (18:56)
This behind the scenes feature shows the enormous precision and consideration placed on words, phrases and their delivery in the audio dubbing of the film. It is a torturous process and a side of ‘making of’ features we rarely see on a DVD, so it scores well for originality. However it is of interest only if you find it fascinating to see an actor and director discussing the meaning, timing and phrasing of the word froideur for ten minutes. Optional subtitles are provided.

Elfriede Jelinek interview (10:26)
An interview with the author of the novel The Piano Teacher, in German with fixed French subtitles at the bottom of the screen and optional English subtitles at the top. It is a little terrifying to discover that there is quite an amount of autobiographical material in the novel and film.

Michael Haneke interview (22:43)
An excellent and substantial interview with the Austrian director, in French with optional English subtitles. Haneke is always interesting when discussing ideas and theories on acting, directing and the cinema. He also talks about what he kept from the novel in its adaptation, what he left out and what he introduced to make it work as a film. It is good to see that he won’t be drawn on interpretation, preferring to leave that element to the actors and particularly the viewer.

Filmographies are provided for Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel and Michael Haneke.

This is an excellent DVD of a superb film. The Piano Teacher is not an easy film to watch. It is not comfortable, acceptable cinema as entertainment. The film is extreme and provocative, but it is also subtle, letting the fine nuance of movement, colour, emotion, expression and especially music, convey much of the power of the film. With films becoming increasingly formulaic and predictable, cinema today needs more challenging films like this.

9 out of 10
9 out of 10
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