Michael Haneke’s Hidden was one of those strange unsettling films with one truly shocking scene that lingers in your mind for a very long time, so I was curious to see more of his stuff. The Piano Teacher certainly ticks the controversial and shocking boxes, but I’m afraid I was less than impressed this time around.
Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a 40-ish teacher at the conservatory of music in Vienna. She lives with her overbearing mother who still treats her as if she was a little girl, and the two sleep in the same bed… so yeah some massive psychological issues there. Words to describe Erika would be, severe, unsmiling, cold, harsh, uptight, distant, repressed. She also leads a secret life visiting porn shops, where the male clients are made visibly uncomfortable by her matter-of-fact presence. Sometimes she locks herself in the bathroom with a razor, doing something I’d rather not describe, suffice to say it made me cover up my eyes for a while. She is without a question a deeply disturbed woman – for reasons the film never really explains – but there seems to be a sort of stable routine in her life, which is rocked when one of her students, a handsome young man named Walter, takes an interest in her, resulting in a sexual battle of wills.
I’m guessing the film was meant to be some sort of unflinching, brutally honest look at repressed sexuality, sadomasochism and gender roles, but to me it all came off as rather silly, overwrought and not in the least bit plausible. Sometimes a film just feels off right from the start, and I got a whiff of that in the opening scene, where Erika comes home and has a terrible row with her mother, who goes through her bag and tears up what she deems an age-inappropriate sexy dress. Erika pulls at her mother’s hair, tearing out whole clumps before remorse overcomes her and mother and daughter share a tearful hug. All of this is pure over-the-top melodrama, but the film presents it in a super-serious, clinical manner, and the overall tone feels rather phony. Walter’s interest in Erika also never feels convincing – not necessarily because of the age gap or Erika’s severe make-up-free appearance. He just seems like a regular 20-something guy without any particular depth to his personality, and it’s hard to see why exactly he’d chase after someone as cold and unapproachable as Erika. Huppert is a magnetic actress who is superb at playing icy characters with a sea of boiling emotion underneath, but her efforts aren’t enough to save this film from feeling artificial and ultimately dull.