It is precisely the repression of sexuality in Western Culture that has created such a rich discourse surrounding the troubled subject, theorized the brilliant Frenchman Michel Foucault in the 1970’s. Because sexuality is the unspeakable, it becomes utterly impossible to speak of anything else. In its silence, it screams.
Thank God. For if sexuality didn’t exist, we’d have to make it up. It holds out unique promises of madness, terror and torture that no other subject, discourse, or act has ever approached. And it is, of course, rich fodder for art.
A recent spate of French films, many of which are notably directed by women, take as their topic desire and all its associated problems.
Catherine Breillat’s brilliant “Romance” and “Fat Girl” are preoccupied with articulating a female eroticism that is as troubled and complex as its male counterpart, while simultaneously tracking a gentle and private terrain. Coralie’s “Rape Me” maps a relationship between violence and sexuality in which women may occupy roles other than Victim.
The newest addition to this fascinating and timely set is Michael Haneke’s stunning “La Pianiste” (“The Piano Teacher”). Based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel and starring the indescribably nuanced Isabelle Huppert, it is a meditation on power in all its varied forms: erotic, destructive, and loving.
Huppert is Erika Kohut, a pianist and professor who lives with her overbearing and intrusive mother (Annie Girardot). Although Kohut’s talent is formidable, she is far from a world-class performer; nor does she live vicariously through her students. Rather, her quotidian preoccupations center on her body, her fantasies, and the negotiation of private sexual space. The magnificent blandness of Huppert’s face makes each tiny movement contain a universe of emotional information.
The world of “The Piano Teacher” is a shockingly realistic one in which a woman’s feelings for her mother can range from murderous hatred to desperate quasi-sexual desire. This world makes no pretenses about the redemptive power of love. In fact, it rightly acknowledges that surrounding affection and sex can be the most corrupt and heartless sentiments, and the most insignificant piano lesson can be site of the most potent power struggles and intellectual betrayals. Erica Kohut craves stimulation, and in its absence, she has to stage it.
There has been a fair bit of controversial press surrounding this film. In one striking moment, Kohut frequents a pornography booth and clutches to her nose and mouth a tissue filled with the previous patron’s semen as some sort of primal oxygen source that simultaneously gives life and masks it.
In another, Kohut uses a razor to cut a darkened space between her legs, challenging the saccharine contemporary feminist discourse that suggests the clitoris will set women free. Genitalia can also oppress.
But these scenes, although conventionally shocking, are not the locus of horror in this work. In fact, like hard-core pornography that is simultaneously engaging and passionless, “The Piano Teacher” blocks a certain emotional connection to its own story. The most terrifying and distressing scenes are those that hint at intimacy. In the context of the rest of the work, even one small moment of genuine feeling slaps us in the face.
Tenderness arrives in the form of the young and beautiful Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). His fate is to fall in love with Kohut, and in the tradition of great tragedy, his desire ruins them both.
When Kohut bares her soul to him, begging for sexual torture, we see his great cruelty: he mocks her sexual instructions in a scene much more painful than the acts she requests. He just wants to get laid; she’s pleading for her life. At the end of the film, like a proud feral animal, she walks off to die alone, a soul truly too sensitive for this world.
Music figures in the film as the liminal site where reason and passion are negotiated; Kohut’s desire for a physical truth in music plays nicely against Klemmer’s immature and empty showmanship. Her rituals stand in for real fulfillment in the same way that he substitutes aesthetic platitudes for genuine artistic vulnerability.
The French have a way of demystifying sex, reducing it to issues of mechanics or power. They are all too aware that sex is always staged. Reinforcing this notion is the luminous cinematography that lights interior slivers — the screen is filled with pristine whites and muddied creams, a palate of forced and false purity.
Though some will certainly flock to this film because of its controversial subject matter, and though others will seek it out simply because art films this good are so rare and so satisfying, I suspect that a few will pursue it for more personal reasons: Haven’t we all suspected at some time that fantasies are more satisfying than their realizations? And doesn’t it often feel like sex and desire are nature’s cruelest tricks?