Emerging from her “cage” at the Vienna Conservatory, Erika Kohut now enters a prison of a different make: the apartment she owns with her mother. They have a confrontation over what forty-something Erika has done earlier in the night – namely shopping for frivolous clothing – and hair-pulling and ugly histrionics ensue before mother and daughter reconcile to take their nightly place in the bed they share. In this title sequence, director Michael Haneke presents the microcosm of their relationship, bipolar and incestuous in all but deed. Adapted from the novel by Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) carries the fragrance of an old novel, but the film's motifs of ritualized sexual violence and voyeurism come across as a contrarian gesture. Marrying the contemporary and classic in an incisive study of brutalized passions, Haneke explores man's urge to direct his own suffering.
Isabelle Huppert inhabits the eponymous part of Erika, a woman whose personal and professional lives are thoroughly dedicated to control and the pursuit of perfection. Huppert has a history of playing self-contained women and here she is in fine form as a Viennese specimen of severity whose transgressive desires seethe underneath a mask of icy poise. Operating on the principles of classical tragedy, Haneke paints two distinct and opposing artistic tendencies within her, worrying the tension between the chic and the abject.
The film chronicles her suffering, which begins with small acts of rebellion in the form of sexual compulsions. Erika's identity is fractured by disparate roles; At home, she simultaneously plays the infantilized daughter and the surrogate husband for her mother. Outside of her conservatory and home, she is a lurker, a voyeur with latent violence directed towards others and herself. Indeed, Erika is something rarely seen in cinema - a beautiful female pervert. This uncomfortable tension is acknowledged even within the film, at a sex shop on one of Erika's furtive excursions where her very presence disturbs and shames the male customers and breaks them out of the fantasy. Erika is seemingly repulsed by her femaleness, cutting her sex as a hobby. Thankfully Haneke doesn't predicate our empathy on the provision of backstory. One simply reacts to the shocking but plaintive truths of what she's doing and to the questions of why or why not. The character cannot be so easily consumed by the viewer, who must activate his or her fantasy in the detangling of her motivations. It is not clear, for example, whether Erika, the middle aged piano teacher, has fallen below expectations of fame and fortune because she lacks the talent or because she has purposely thwarted her ambitions out of spite for her mother. One does get the sense her artistic drive has curdled when she browbeats her admiring students. Her self-loathing in this respect perhaps manifests most clearly in a subplot where she sabotages the potential career of a female student with an equally domineering mother.
Haneke, in his infinite perversity, sets up the love triangle between Erika, her mother, and the rakish student, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). While Walter's eagerness provokes Erika, Freudian principles of transference help explain why Erika cannot feel or respond to the latter's conventional expressions of love. He even changes a public performance of a Schönberg piece to one of Schubert's just to impress her (and that is quite a difference – jumping from the Modern discordance to Romanticism). Walter pursues her ardently, initiating a game of seduction meanwhile failing to (or refusing to) recognize her bizarre symptoms of illness. For an instant he is a paragon of mythic muscularity, the white knight to liberate the repressed heroine but, alas, the film is decidedly anti-love.
For Erika has an uncompromising idea of love, in which art is to be confused with real life. Music is the predominant metaphor for love in the film, and the recurring scenes in which Erika gives rigorously precise note-by-note analysis of a piece of music serve as reminders of the fact. Walter, while attractive to her, is not the perfect lover because he does not play music they way she expects, which is to say with complete dedication to the art. Walter uses music to seduce Erika, who does not want to be seduced and possessed in the same way she is possessed by her mother. Her rigid rules for sexuality in turn convey the Romantic paradox of applying Apollonian order to Dionysian emotions. “Feelings won't defeat my intelligence,” Erika states to Walter after an unconsummated sexual encounter. Later she gives Walter explicit “instructions” by letter expressing her desires to be beaten and gagged. Alternatively infuriated and disgusted, Walter is curious enough to keep playing. Subtextually, Erika controls Walter's pleasure in the same way the director controls the emotions of the viewer. Haneke is a formalist and he shoots meticulously, so his presence is felt less in the stationary camerawork and more in the actions of the characters. Haneke identifies with Erika and projects those active, masculine characteristics onto her, but Haneke does not turn her into feminist statement. Erika is not so much aware of her behavior as she is reacting defensively to protect her selfhood.
When Erika's wishes are granted in the traumatic climax, the scene is devoid of sexual gratification. Walter's transformation from the precocious admirer to the abusive savage is shocking. “Not as you imagined?” Walter mercilessly posits, and with this statement Haneke seemingly implicates the viewer seeking vicarious thrills from a movie about sadomasochism.
In the end, life goes on and the contemptuous young man abandons the broken older woman as the viewer similarly walks away from the film. With Huppert's indelible parting look of agony and her final tragic gesture, Haneke draws back the curtain over his theatre of cruelty.
 Refer to the Apollonian-Dionysian axis. " Fredrich Nietsche, Raymond Guess, Nietsche: The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge: University Press, 1999.
 Freud describes transference as "...re-experiencing emotional relations which had their origin in…earliest object-attachments during the repressed period of…childhood." Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.
 For curious minds, the two pieces in question are Schönberg's Opus 33b and Schubert's Scherzo from the Sonata in A Major.
Image courtesy of the author.