The Piano Teacher may be a little French. And a little slow. And a little about classical music. But it really is just as wild a ride as any star war. It takes you on a completely insane journey. And not some discrete ‘insanities of the eternal condition of being human’ method (though it is that too); it’s straight up outrageous. Sure, it takes its time to get there. But that’s because it’s all about being the most impactful story it can be. Its richness and ambiguity allow for a much fuller and more rewatchable experience than almost anything else I’ve seen.
What does it all mean? I don’t really know, but armed with caffeine, pedantry, and continental philosophy I’m taking a deep dive to try and find out!
Private Lives Within Private Lives
We all act differently depending on our company. This is the kind of basic fact we all know to be true, but the film shows the troubling consequences within the every day. If our personality is malleable to context, then what kind of pervasive or even internally consistent self can we claim to have? Society operates like marionette, and our only option is whether to look up and face it or keep moving and hope we’re being taken on a good path.
And in the first half hour of The Piano Teacher one thing that’s hammered home is that every character has multiple selves, shifting like a chameleon to suit their surroundings. But this isn’t a simple desire to fit in or conform: it often relates to complex power relations. Erika’s mother politely lets a professor bore her, but then goes to on to berate her daughter. Meanwhile Erika lets herself be treated as a child before she sees a student to attack (for the very sexual perversion she herself is so ashamed of!). And so, the cycle continues.
This is where the importance of music is most apparent. Erika admonishes others for not respecting the passion in the music, while living out the boring middle-class lifestyle the music rallies against. And her mother seems to have no care for passion: she constantly scoffs at the overly excited and is far more interested in the status of a concert than any artistic merit. The life she wants to lead, and (it is implied) brought her daughter into, is one of mirrors not really caring. The family dynamic is constantly at odds with public persona, so it’s only natural the individuals would have totally different means of operating within themselves. The mother knows nothing of how Erika acts on her own. So can we assume the mother has her own private life? It is certainly suggested, but her inaccessibility even to us makes her conflictions more powerful.
The Death of Fantasy
The French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that our deepest fantasies are best off staying that way. To live out a fantasy is one of the most violent things we can do, because what’s in our mind is so totally different from anything in the world. Imagine a woman who regularly fantasises about starting an affair with her next door neighbour. One day he comes knocking on the door and declares that is his intention as well. This should be great for her, right? But now something that was pure has suddenly lost that. In her imagination everything can be as perfect as she likes, but he can never understand what she wants in the depth she can. Even for her to explain makes the moment inferior. And here’s the kicker: things can’t go back to way they were. The fantasy has become, in a way, infected.
On the face of it Walter is everything Erika could ever want. He is handsome, passionate, and essentially talented in a way the rest of her students are not. He feels the music from his heart, playing without sheet music, while the rest plod along aimlessly to the beat. But this is just a projection. What she thinks of him is not who he really is. She wants total control of the situation: executing plans with psychotic precision even just to get him to the bathroom. But the moment she grants him the slightest power it all falls apart. When he loves her back this is even worse: his trying to meet Erika on her own terms emphasizes just how impossible they really are. The moment she reveals what she really wants, it is lost. Reality gets in the way. The fantasy is inherently unachievable.
And all this builds to the violent finale. What is suicide but the ultimate fantasy? We can idolise the results but never can face them outside of our mind. In the end she takes back control of her desires because no one else can manipulate them. And yes that’s pretty grim, but the journey is a worthwhile one.
Putting her fantasies into writing changes everything. Codifying every decision forces them to fit into language, already altering them. When the rawest form of our existence is forced into the finitude of a few pages something is bound to be lost. This communicative point is hammered home throughout, with the letter representing an ultimate futility. No one really understands each other since our language is too limited to explain. Erika’s students don’t understand music the way she claims too. They in turn don’t understand her true desires are far more secretive and shameful then she lets on. She doesn’t understand this isn’t a shared sentiment among everyone. And, again, the cycle moves aimlessly forward.
She thinks that this is the truest way to make him understand, to bring them closer together. But the very fact that she must do this demonstrates the distance between them. And that’s what makes it so much more heartbreaking when he can’t understand the contents inside. Because their understanding of what the letter means are so different. To her it is everything, the culminated manifestation of decades of abuse and loneliness, but he can’t understand that. And how could he? Such a rich phenomenon could never be contained within the raw information of language.
Everything this film achieves thematically is supported by how formally great the film is. Isabelle Huppert is one of the greatest facial actresses ever: there’s such a richness and ambiguity to her reaction shots (and the breaking of the 180 rule to show them is brilliantly jarring). The filmmaking is, as ever with Haneke, top notch. There’s a real violence to many of the cuts. Often in musical shots we only see the performers hands, demonstrating their removal from the art they produce. And, of course, the beauty of the music only serves to deepen the question of how artists can produce something so perfect within the ideological contradictions we live every day
Because what really makes The Piano Teacher great is that none of what I’ve just said is fact. It’s merely postulation, just one of countless interpretations: each scene and character has vastly varying levels of motivation or importance depending on your perspective. It really is truly stunning that both Erika and Walter could be legitimately viewed as both the hero and the villain of the relationship with such depth and intricacy. I could have just equally discussed the film’s commentary on gender roles, or paternal relations, or the role of high art in modern society. Mark Kermode said his favourite film is The Exorcist because he’s seen it 183 times and found a different film every time. Well that’s certainly true of The Piano Teacher as well.