Relief. That’s what I felt when The Piano Teacher was mercifully over. The movie not only leaves nothing to my imagination, but renders it obsolete as I endured from one twisted scene to the next, wondering what could possibly come next. When the main character, Erika Kohut, remarked, “Be quiet. You will wake the whole building,” I noted that as one of the few drops of rational thought in the whole movie.
Trash or Treasure?
However, what I saw as a sick movie, others saw as praiseworthy and even deserving of awards. That happens often, in fact. Glaring examples of such extremes in opinion confront us daily in reports related to the two candidates in our current, most bitter presidential eection. Some see the Republican candidate as a maverick who plans a paid-for-by-Mexico border wall with a big, beautiful door, as one who will shake up, then drain the swamp that is Washington DC, giving established politicians, both Republican and Democrat, a much needed kick in the rear. Others see this same candidate as a buffoon, a misogynist, and a racist, and they are horrified and deeply embarrassed at the thought of projecting him upon the world stage as our leader.
Regarding his opponent, some see the Democrat candidate as a calm, collected and experienced politician who is an expert on policy, which will enable her to effectively lead the country through turbulent times. Others see a cold, calculating, and corrupt politician with blood on her hands that makes no difference to her.
As another example, some admire Jackson Pollack and Barnett Newman’s art at New York City’s Modern Museum of Art and marvel at their genius. Others cannot appreciate abstract or modern art at all, which to them resembles what they see children do with a paintbrush. There is no truer saying than, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Yet, each side tends to see itself morally and intellectually superior to the other. There is a divide in America and it is growing deeper partly because most Americans have very little to no tolerance for an opposing point of view. Since I do not want to be accused of that, I will delve into how and why others deemed The Piano Teacher praiseworthy.
I usually avoid reading the movie reviews of others so I can keep my thoughts original. I made an exception for The Piano Teacher because I needed help in understanding why it should be on a movie bucket list—it is included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, (Schneider, 2012). Below is a combination of my thoughts and what I gathered from reading other reviews, both from commercial publications and personal blogs.
- The acting was superior. I nod in agreement with otheir critics on this. Isabelle Huppert played the uncomfortable role of Erika Kohut so well that one forgets she is an actress. Isn’t that the goal of every movie performance?
- Likewise with Benoit Magimel as Walter Klemmer. This is as good as acting gets. One critic lauded the crafty portrayal of a ‘song and dance’ between a deranged piano teacher, and her youthful student.
- The Piano Teacher contained the necessary elements that make for a quality film:
- Attraction: Attention from a younger man might have been an ego boost for the messed-up character of Erika Kohut. The Piano Teacher effectively demonstrated Erika’s falling for Walter with scenes of her observing from afar his being kind to other people.
- Conflict: The Piano Teacher revolves around the dysfunctional relationship between Erika Kohut and her insufferably controlling mother.
- Tension: From early on in the film, the major theme of the mother/daughter conflict is established, and maintained throughout. Yet, The Piano Teacher goes in directions that a first-time audience would not anticipate. This creates an unsettled feeling that keeps the audience thinking and wondering.
- Irony: Ultimately, Erika got what she wanted. Walter Klemmer followed her wishes. Through sabotage, she secured a performance at the concert for her mother’s approval. Yet, she ended up in all-too-familiar situations—on the floor begging for love and attention, and enduring her mother’s shrugging off “just a school concert.”
- Background: The conservative, subdued, yet elegant world of conservatory music was in sharp contrast with the raging, demonic turmoil going on inside Erika. The Piano Teacher’s cinematography emphasized this with lingering close ups of her face. Her escapades to peep shows, porn shops, and drive thru theaters provided additional contrast.
- Audience: The Piano Teacher did not explicitly explain certain aspects, trusting the audiences to come to their own conclusions.
Film as expression of art and life
After taking the time to listen and read other point of views, I acknowledge that the film itself is an expression of art and life, albeit unusual in my thinking. For real, there are some sick people out there; sadomasochists, perpetrators and victims of unhealthy and incestuous parent/child relationships, evil-doers who act out of insane jealousy, people who attempt to lure the unsuspecting into unconventional sex, and people who mutilate themselves. These people need to be represented in film so our minds are open to them and to what they are capable of doing. Movies as well as books are a reflection of our lives and our world. Thus, one does not have to like The Piano Teacher, but there is no arguing that it represents what is real.
Schneider, S. (2012). 1001 Movies you must see before you die. New York: Brazo’s.