Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The forthcoming release of Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction—and the recent release of the excellent Approaching The Elephant—has us thinking back on other movies about teaching.
In the central scene of The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner, a woman reveals herself to a man, with equal parts excitement and apprehension. It’s the sort of emotionally charged act that repeats itself ad infinitum throughout the world: someone giving a lover access to the deepest chambers of their psyche, thrilled to have the opportunity to do so but terrified of what their visitor will make of it. In any relationship, once the courtship has faded, the masks come down and a question is posed: Will you still love me when you see who I truly am?
The problem is, the woman revealing herself, Erika (Isabelle Huppert), is dealing with extraordinary pathologies. In her 40s, she still lives with her mother (in fact, they share a bedroom!) and has no other personal relationships. When she isn’t fending off her mother’s invasions of privacy, she serves as a viciously critical piano teacher at a conservatory. Her highly regimented life is thrown off balance when she reluctantly accepts, as a pupil, the preternaturally talented (and very good-looking) Walter (Benoît Magimel). With a highly strained relationship to sexuality—in one scene, Erika visits an adult video store’s private booth and sniffs some used Kleenex, after which she heads home to inflict cuts upon her vagina—Erika’s attraction to Walter alarms her deeply. At first she’s terrified by the intrusion in her routine and wants Walter out of her life. But after seeing another student flirting with him, Erika tellingly sabotages the young woman’s prospects as a pianist by putting glass shards in her jacket pockets. (It’s one if the film’s most brutal scenes.)
Haneke, a master at taking typical bourgeois situations and blowing them up to their logical extremes, here manages to examine, and then dilate, everyday anxieties regarding relationships and sexuality. Erika uses her position of power as a teacher as her buffer, a boundary that prevents her from having to connect in an intimate way with anyone who crosses her path (besides her mother). Haneke’s approach, ever-withholding of judgments, comes to illuminate the reality that Erika’s need to hide behind the screen of her job is not unlike the approach so many individuals take when faced with the fear of “putting themselves out there,” as denizens of the dating world so often put it. As The Piano Teacher reaches the aforementioned central scene, the spectator may come to a startling realization: For all of her hyperbolic anxieties, Erika isn’t so different from the rest of us.
Availability: The Piano Teacher is available on DVD as part of Kino’s The Michael Haneke Collection and can be obtained from your local video store/library. It is also currently streaming on Netflix.