The Piano Teacher Review

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sirg0508's review of The Piano Teacher


“Note from writer: The Piano Teacher is not suitable...”

Written on: 16/10/2005 by sirg0508 (9 reviews written)

Good Points
Good translation, superb music composition from actors

Bad Points
Quite shocking

General Comments
Note from writer: The Piano Teacher is not suitable for under 18's nor is my review so you have been warned! This review contains very few spoilers.

'The Piano Teacher' has to be one of the strangest films I have seen in a while and I still have no idea if I liked it or not. The film is French and better known as 'La Pianiste' not to be confused with other films with the name 'Le Pianiste' (a comedy) or 'The Pianist'. This one stars Isabelle Huppert as Erika who I recognised from another similar French film called 'Merci Pour Le Chocolat' and Beno t Magimel and Annie Girardot who I don't think I have seen before. The story originates from a book by Elfride Jelineck which was written in German and carefully translated and directed by Michael Haneke. I haven't read the book but know from the DVD extras that this film only tells about a third of the story and is less shocking than the book itself.

The story:

Erika Kohut, a piano teacher, leads an extremely suppressed life which was probably brought on with the death of her father. She still lives with her mother and still they share the same bedroom even in her late thirties (rough guess!) but through choice, not force. Her life is full of bitterness, the only place she can find passion is by visiting a porn shop where they have booths to watch pornographic films. Because of her suppressed life, Erika finds a release by self harming/mutilation (cutting herself), abusing her mother, buying clothes she will never wear and almost leading a fantasy life. As a piano teacher, Erika is unbelievably critical - if a student plays a perfect piece she will always find something to put them down - if it is not the technicalities of the music it is the student themselves and the lives they lead. Jealousy plays a major role in the film - usually Erika's jealousy towards other peoples lives, the love they have, but also towards her students she teaches, they learn but she can't stand it when play a piece perfectly.

At a recital, Erika meets a self confident almost arrogant character M. Walter Klemmer - imagine him as someone at school that will kiss up to the teacher, pushing the limits to see how far he can go well, that happens literally in this film. He 'leeches' his way into Erika's master class but at the point of his entrance exam, she falls in love with him perhaps it was the music, his charm or the way he performed. As the story continues, the characters lives (mainly Erika's) develop into something completely out of the ordinary bringing new meaning to the phrase 'it's always the quiet ones'.

Erika takes things to the extreme.

My opinion:

The story is well thought out, well written and very well acted. The quality of the filming is superb but also mirrors the story - no bright or vibrant colours; it's dull to reflect Erika's life. Although the film has left me with a rather strange feeling and a wonder about life, the story itself is very easy to follow (even when trying to read the subtitles at the same time). There were a couple of parts in the film I felt were not needed and just seemed to take up time but eventually relates to the story. The film at times is quite shocking, even disgusting and I felt myself crossing my legs a few times. The end of the film could almost be a cliff hanger - no one knows what happens and I felt myself saying 'hmm ok'.

The characters play their parts extremely well, and the slightest gesture says more than an obvious gesture. Special effects are used in the film although nothing like dramatic fireball scenes just violence and the blood actually looks exceedingly real. Filming such as a close up held on the character gives time for the scene to develop but also has a very large impact on how the scene is to be perceived. There are quite a few instances when all that is seen is the actors/actresses back but it is not meaningless. The characters parts do develop in this film but it is so subtle yet seems much bigger than it actually is. A little touch of colour adds life to a character even if it is only from grey to a peach colour. Each of the 3 main characters play such different roles and it is only after seeing the film a few times that the reasons for this are known - e.g. why Erika feels the need to harm a pupil - it could be revenge, jealousy but is actually to show that this pupil is a lot like Erika and continuing this life will inevitably put her on the same path as Erika is now on.

The director, Michael Haneke is well known to shocking people watching his films, leaving them feeling unsettled but he also mentions in the interview in the extra that there are comical moments in the film personally, I don't think there are. The way he relates the music to the story, the protection he gives to the actors and his general direction is first-rate.

The characters

Erika - the protagonist leading the dull life. Her clothes reflect her life - old fashioned, dull and pretty boring. When her love for Walter begins, there is a change - the red lipstick, her hair becomes brighter, and there is colour to her wardrobe even if she is still wearing cardigans. Isabelle Huppert plays her part extremely well. She doesn't give up or give in to temptation and the bitterness is shown in a face that never smiles. The character becomes almost child like, revealing her deepest thoughts wishing for someone to control her.

Walter Klemmer - I'm not really sure what age he is supposed to be in the film but I'm guessing it is probably late twenties. His blonde hair and blue eyes make him look more like a sex crazed teenager though! His love for Erika is a little out placed but perhaps because he liked the challenge of getting someone he almost can't have - trying to break someone but who will be dominant in a relationship. The character changes, understandably when a secret is revealed but to me seemed hard to believe. Beno t Magimel is an extremely talented piano player and I couldn't even believe it when the director said in his interview that he had never even played the piano before! His character knows his talent and although some might find him charming, I find his character extremely arrogant and too aware of his talents. I've no idea of the real person behind the character but I hope they are not alike! As someone who knows nothing about music, there could be things technically wrong with his playing (but he is playing against a recording) that I wouldn't notice.

The mother - Annie Girardot is brilliant. She doesn't play such a big role as Isabelle (Erika) but is a very prominent supporting actress. Mme (Mrs) Kohut is an extremely strong willed character insisting on her daughter meeting her expectations. She wants to know where her daughter is, what she is doing, tells her off for buying a new dress and is generally overly controlling. At recitals she is there with a cardigan in a bag to fuss over her daughter with after she has finished playing. This character takes a few knocks in the film from the two characters in the film and plays the role very well.

There are other characters in the film but they all play such a small role that they do not really have to be mentioned.

The music:

Unlike many films, you will not find pop music forming the soundtrack to this film. The whole thing focuses on a couple of composers - Bach, Schubert, Beethoven and Schonberg the classics. The music is not overly dramatic but adds a very subtle touch even when no words are said. At times the lyrics to the songs are said or sung giving a metaphorical meaning to the story.

The Setting:

Vienna does not play a big part in this film at all. A lot of the film is set in the flat, somewhere at a piano (mostly the Vienna Conservatory) and I would say in general, indoors.

The language:

The language of the film is of course French but with all the music there is also quite a bit in German too. As someone who can only translate the French, the subtitles on the DVD are not literal translations but make more sense than they might do if a direct translation had been used. Just remember that 'oui' means 'yes' as they do not spoon feed in the language help! As seen in one of the DVD extras, there is a problem in translating things into different languages - not everything can translate. The main word shown as being a problem was 'coldness' - not as in weather being cold but the feeling towards something.

Certificate: The film is rated 18 for a reason it shows part of a porn film, involves violence, swearing, but surprisingly very little nudity from the actors themselves.

Extras: There is a good selection of extras on this film - as well as choosing whether or not to have subtitles (in English), also scene section and special features:

. Film trailer: Taken from the Cannes Film festival, the trailer probably gives a good explanation of them film but gives a good indication of what is not to be expected the classical music, some of the shocking scenes, and generally how dull life is.

. Commentary by Isabelle Huppert - Here Isabelle explains 7 of the scenes in the film. The point her character falls in love, self mutilation, the first lesson for Walter and the music involved in the film, the audition, the rehearsal, Walters lesson (coughing), the same lesson but the way in which words are said, reading the letter, incest, ice rink, and the final scene

. Elfride Jelineck Interview - this is the author of the original book and the whole interview is spoken in German - the book, originally in German having the trouble with being translated directly into French. The author explains her life, her childhood, her parents, their religious beliefs, and the fact that certain German pieces are not performed because they are so new and deal with political situations at that time. If a mother is strong she can ruin her child's psychological life and sexual life and this was the focus of many aspects of the book - almost an autobiography. Luckily this section also contains subtitles and is filmed in what could be a hotel with one part of the interview at a window with snow falling in the background.

. Michael Haneke Interview - the director here explains his adaptation of the book to the film, he removed the flashbacks from the book and created a relationship between the mother and daughter which doesn't exist in the book. He didn't have any strong feelings towards it being an autobiography of the author's life. It is quite bad filming here - the close ups generally cut out half of Michael's head! He explains why he picked Isabelle to play the part of Erika and her qualities.

. Filmographies: Here we can see all the films that each of the actors/actresses has been in - i.e. Isabelle Huppert, Annie Giradot, Beno t Magimel, and the directors' filmography. Isabelle has a pretty impressive one as does Annie but Beno t's is a lot shorter. Most of the films have several different names depending on the country so it shows the German, French, English etc. names too.

In conclusion and after having seen the film several times, the story is very clear, quite shocking at times, containing some wonderful musical pieces, extremely well acted but still doesn't contain anything that really grabs the viewer. Although subtle differences in clothing do have a large impact, this isn't a hard hitting action film. There are very few special effects but those which do occur are not large but quite realistic. This film is probably most suited to classical music lovers with a love of foreign films (although if the piano playing is bad, that could get on your nerves). The end is a bit of a disappointment in that there is no final answer to the film and could very well contain a sequel if only half the book was used to tell the story. I don't think I will be watching it again and can only give it 3 stars it's not a bad film but on the other hand isn't brilliant perhaps suited to a different taste to mine.

Length: 2 hours (not including special features).

Price: Free on a DVD rental trial but to buy is £8.97 at Amazon.

DVD Region: 2

Certificate: 18

  • Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot

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