Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Piano Teacher: Sick Movie for a Saturday Night

I saw my first film by provocateur Michael Haneke, The Piano Teacher (2001), and I decided to jot down my initial reflection, centered on my interpretation of the film's central theme, and the parallel themes that inform it.

In other news, I've started posting capsule reactions to Twitter whenever I see a film. Check out my Twitter feed if this interests you. So far, both reactions I've done have taken up exactly the 140 allowed characters... I'll try to continue this irrelevant trend!

This film, insomuch as I've discerned some order in its madness, is about masturbation: a compulsive, self-involved sexual appetite, fueled by fantasy and incompatible with reality. Erika could be a case study of a person whose inability to relate to people drives her to a life of sexual self-involvement, to the point of perverted pathologies. For starters, consider the film's obsession with hands (unavoidable, for a movie about piano virtuosity), and its themes of guilt and voyeurism, the most superficial telltale signs. The film doesn't contrive to explain Erika's obsessive self-indulgence/denial in any simple way... indeed, there are so many psychological forces hovering over her, it becomes a bit of an orgy of negative influences and broken behavioral patterns (if you'll pardon the figure of speech).

Of course, there's a few intersecting themes here... the alienation and indifference of the Vienna intellectual class is certainly a factor, having so deeply affected the psychology of the dominant characters. Only Erika's students are emotionally complete human beings: Walter with his compassion, self-possession, and vulnerability, and Anna, with her frustrated hopes and fragile self-image. The adults of Erika's world can only talk about things clinically, or judgmentally, or academically, having mistaken their aesthetic sensibilities for actual personalities.

Of course, it's hard to tell whether this clique is really so alienated, or whether we're just experiencing them through Erika's distorted lens. Haneke's cold shooting style seems objective, but to Erika, her own detached view of the world must seem equally objective, and indeed, even the earlier, quieter parts of the film are suffused with cynicism. Those who feel The Piano Teacher is objective and external have bought into one of the film's many hustles... it's actually a deeply internal film, but it's internal to a mind that's dead of sentiment and vulnerability, a purely aesthetic self-construction with no sensitivity to anything but music.

It's easy to dig into Erika's relationship with her mother for some deep Freudian explanation -- indeed, it's almost too obvious, considering the film takes place in Vienna -- but we don't really have to dig. Of all the film's relationships, this is one that wears its dysfunction most on its sleeve. It's a relationship with broken boundary issues and abusive patterns... a battle for control on the part of Erika's mother, and an already-lost struggle for independence on Erika's own part. Erika's mother's combination of physical intimidation and guilt-mongering is an extreme extension of bad parenting, and it's got Erika stuck in petulant child mode. This is why Erika's own sexuality is onanistic and adolescent: she's never emerged from that phase of childhood when we start feeling sexual urges and looking for ways to express them, but have to keep them secret from the watchful eyes of our parents. It's telling that Erika's only actual sexual encounters are in clandestine asides in public places: the bathroom of the conservatory, the closet of a skating ring, the classic refuges for guilty teenage sexuality. Stuck in such unhealthy proximity to her mother, it's natural that Erika would develop these patterns -- she doesn't even have the luxury of her own bed to have sex (or masturbate) in!

Among the most curious developments in The Piano Teacher is Erika's belief, apparently mistaken, that she would enjoy being the victim of sexual dominance. She spends the whole film reminding herself of her own power, intentionally undermining the people around her in order to keep herself in control of their emotional states. As her behavior develops, a pronounced dichotomy between reality and fantasy emerges. Apparently, Erika's obsession with dominance is rooted in a deeper fantasy about submission. Erika clearly hopes Walter can help her bridge this gap between the real and the imagined, and this belief turns out to be misguided. As unpredictable as Erika's desires turn out to be, it's even more confounding that these desires can't be fulfilled, or the whole construct comes crashing down.

One of the great strengths of the film is the logical ordering, and simultaneous incomprehensibility, of the main character's psychology. Haneke's storytelling is profoundly unpredictable, building up to missing climaxes (like poor Walter) and staging character developments at moments when the audience's expectations are off-balance. Yet, at the end of the film, all of the characters seem to make sense, their pathologies exhibiting an enigmatic insight into the strangeness of cognition and behavior. Hard to watch? Perhaps... but only because we recognize these twists and turns, though we purport them to be entirely beyond our ken.

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