In 1991, Isabelle Huppert starred in Claude Chabrol’s Madame Bovary, a film that charts the fall of Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine. Emma’s idealistic longing for earth-shattering romance is unmet in the realities of married life; devastated by a series of ill-fated affairs and an insurmountable debt, she abandons herself to that most dramatic display of suffering: a prolonged and painful suicide. On her deathbed, cradled by her devoted husband, Huppert’s Bovary emits a thick black liquid from her mouth: the product of a fatal dose of arsenic; the town priest bids the bereaved find comfort in God’s will, and Emma’s devastated husband defiantly curses this God for allowing such suffering. A decade after playing Emma Bovary, Huppert would star in another tale of doomed romance – Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste 2001). Adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, Der Klavierspielerin, Haneke’s rendering is a kind of anti-melodrama, taking the conventions of the doomed romance familiar from Bovary and showing them up for their contradictory nature: histrionic and subdued, grotesque and utterly banal.
Early in Haneke’s film, Erika Kohut, Huppert’s piano teacher of the film’s title, prepares to accompany cello and violin in a rendition of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-Flat in a colleague’s home rehearsal room. After a false start, the three players begin again, and from this bourgeois setting replete with books and ornaments, Haneke transports us to a scene of everyday consumerism. Schubert’s piece carries over to our new setting; glass elevator doors open and Erika steps out into a busy shopping mall. A careless man bumps into her and Erika absent-mindedly brushes her shoulder as though soiled by this unwanted contact, before entering a sex shop. Floor to ceiling displays of explicit magazines and films are blatantly set at odds with the lofty romance of Schubert’s score. Moments later, in the confines of a private viewing booth, Erika will stare wide eyed at the array of hard core pornographic images on offer, sniffing a used tissue discarded by a former customer.
This transition and overlap, the melding and contrast between high and low, private and public, sanitised and abject, enunciate the contradictions within Erika. Expertly articulated by Huppert in what is certainly one of her signature roles, Erika is a tightly wound coil of competing impulses.1 Talented and serious in her profession as a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, Erika maintains a façade of composure, masking her private transgressions. This hermetically sealed persona is shaken, however, with the entrance of a young, handsome student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), who pursues her affections. What follows is not simply the unravelling of a woman, but the tension evinced in watching this unravelling as a self-conscious but involuntary process. Almost 150 years after Flaubert’s Emma would swoon over her disingenuous suitors, Erika is all too aware of the perils lurking in Walter’s romantic declarations.
To say that The Piano Teacher is self-aware, however, is not to align it with the smirking reflexivity of Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/ 2007); The Piano Teacher is kinder to its characters, and to its audience. Nor is it to suggest that the film is bereft of emotion. As Katherine Woodward explains, anti-melodramas do not forego melodramatic elements, instead they incorporate “potentially melodramatic incidents and structures” to have us reflect upon those conventions.2 In The Piano Teacher, reflection comes with its inversion of familiar generic patterns. The passionate embraces and illicit love letters of romantic melodramas are here filtered through Erika’s sadomasochistic imagination. Much to his frustration, Walter’s prince charming is repeatedly affronted by the object of his desire’s refusal to swoon. Where, in Bovary, Huppert summons the big emotions of the genre, in Haneke’s film she is at pains to conceal them. Erika pejoratively jokes about Brahms’s sentimentality, aspiring rather to a self-containment that is unswayed by the weakness of desire. Finally, Emma Bovary’s genuine devastation at being spurned by her lovers, becomes Erika Kohut’s cognizance that such disappointment is inevitable.
And yet, turning the melodrama inside out is not simply a formal exercise. The success of The Piano Teacher is as much a product of its lead performer as it is its director. Huppert gives Erika’s contradictory behaviour nuance and vitality, while Haneke’s restrained style allows us to attend to the complexity of her performance. Erika’s stern declaration that she lacks feelings is undermined by the obstinacy of her body which conveys much more than she would like. Captured in static long takes, the slightest of agitations are observable, betraying a simultaneous longing to abandon herself in the tradition of her generic predecessors, even as she announces otherwise.
It is in this contradiction that Erika suffers, and that the true mastery of The Piano Teacher as anti-melodrama lies. While the film does not avoid the melodramatic, the self-awareness that both it, and its central character bring, is embedded with its own tragedy: Erika is incapable of fully embodying the role ascribed to her as tragic heroine, and the corollary release that comes with relinquishing control. Where Chabrol’s Bovary culminates in the thunderous climax of Emma’s suicide, Erika, inevitably spurned by Walter, can only long that her final gesture will have such an impact. Alone in the Conservatory’s grand foyer, her eyes welling with tears, Erika removes a knife from her handbag. With an astounding grimace, she drives the blade into her shoulder, before placing it back in her handbag with a resumed coolness. Jelinek’s description of this moment alludes to Erika’s awareness of, and failure to live up to, the demands of the genre she inhabits:
The knife should dig into her heart and twist around! The remainder of the necessary strength fails. Her eyes alight on nothing, and, with no burst of rage, fury, or passion, Erika Kohut stabs a place on her shoulder, which instantly shoots out blood. The wound is harmless, but dirt and pus must not get in. The world, unwounded, does not stand still.3
Faithful to Jelinek’s prose, what should be Erika’s passionate, heart-rending and defiant response to the cruelty of Walter, and the world, in Haneke’s film, is without passion. Pathos is born not of its melodramatic treatment, but its anti-climactic realisation. Erika covers the bloodstain forming on her blouse with her hand and silently exits. Haneke leaves us to contemplate the Conservatory’s façade. Cars pass by. Erika disappears out of view. The world, unwounded, does not stand still.
The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste 2001 Austria; France; Germany 131 mins)
Prod. Co.: Wega Film, MK2 SA, Les Films Alain Sarde, Arte France Cinéma Prod: Veit Heiduschka Dir: Michael Haneke Scr: Michael Haneke, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek Phot: Christian Berger Ed: Nadine Muse, Monica Willi Prod Des: Christoph Kanter
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, Benoît Magimel, Susanne Lothar
- For a fuller consideration of Huppert’s performance, see Alison Taylor, “Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher,” CLOSE UP: Great Cinematic Performances International, ed. Kyle Stevens and Murray Pomerance. Forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. ↩
- Katherine S. Woodward, “European Anti-Melodrama: Godard, Truffaut, and Fassbinder”, Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film & Television Melodrama, ed. Marcia Landy (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p.586. ↩
- Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999), p. 280. ↩