Bark on, bark on, my most vigilant hounds!
Let me not rest when dark slumber abounds!
With my dreams I have reached an end,
No more time have I with sleepers to spend
Franz Schubert, Die Winterreise
This composer, whom the titular character in this film describes in absolute terms as “ugly,” was uncompromisingly devoted to his art, perhaps in no small part because he saw little value in a material life of hedonism and wealth. Schubert's perception of an artist working night and day to achieve minor personalized goals in his lifetime that will only become global imprints well after death suggests not only a blind faith in the redemption of the soul, but also a disheartening contempt for this one life he has been given.
This quandary – art versus life, sacrifice versus immediate gratification, profundity versus superficial banality – is as old as life and art themselves, and one that plagues Erika (the sensational Isabelle Huppert), a teacher and lover of music. Erika is extremely gifted in her field and, like so many artists, as demanding of others as she is of herself. She is a recluse, living with her mother (Annie Girardot) and socializing with no one else, suppressing the quiet pain of having a father rotting away in an asylum (“the twilight of the mind,” she calls it), unpleasant with her students, of whom she can realistically expect little, and evasively bellicose towards her colleagues. So far, Erika fits an artistic stereotype all too well: the insufferable genius who demands perfection in everyone and everything and is left bitter by the gross negligence of a world sworn to mediocrity and passableness. There is, of course, a little more to her than that – and what exactly that little more entails has stirred up a great deal of controversy. Erika has a curiously unhinged side to her that manifests itself in pornographic and sadomasochistic whims, the likes of which have no real place in an artistic work and the reason why this film has been considered a bit of a hybrid. No need to go into details, but suffice it to say that Erika cannot really relate to anything except her music (even her mother is just another obstacle to her routine). And her music is about endless practice, endless striving towards perfection, and the vast majority of life is spent chasing that perfection, with the possibility of attaining it seemingly just around the corner. If this description sounds like a metaphor for something else, then the second half of the film will make perfect sense.
It is precisely at the midway point of the film that she gives in to her desires for Walter (Benoît Magimel), a handsome young prodigy who also has feelings for her of a much more conventional sort. When she first plays before him, the long waits for Walter’s face to react tell you he will be a factor in the film. It is when he first plays, however, that we understand the twisted underside to Erika’s psyche: she cannot bear to look at him, not out of disgust but out of boredom. Erika, you see, has another aspect common to many artists: she is interminably bored when not engaged in her own artistic pursuits. It’s not even that nothing else matters, but that nothing else could possibly matter. But she has urges and physical lacunae that have never really been addressed, and her haplessness in that sliver of life called sexual interaction is as glaring as her art is elevated. When she hurts herself, it’s not for the trite excuse, “I hurt myself because I forgot what it was like to feel something,” but rather the “I don’t remember ever touching anything except piano keys.” At no point does Erika, who is a truly cultured and intelligent person, seem fake or conjured up from the back of some deranged and lonely mind. Yet at the same time she is also an abstraction, a piece of music that someone wrote and commanded to live, a Frankenstein sonata. And when the film, based on a novel by this equally controversial Austrian Nobel Prize winner, asks her to live, it spirals swiftly down into a painful exchange of bruised egos and, well, bruises.
Much has been made of the sex and violence in The Piano Teacher, directed by one of Jelinek’s most famous fellow countrymen, although it’s considerably less than the orgy of sexploitations and sexplosions scripted into your average action film. I have not read Jelinek’s novel and cannot say I am maneuvering my shelf components in anticipation of such a purchase, but the character names reveal a novelist’s touch. Walter’s last name is Klemmer, or, in German, “the one who clamps or traps,” and his first name, when pronounced in French (apart from some songs by Schubert, the film is exclusively in French but filmed in Austria with Germanic names, German street signs, and so forth) does not sound very different from “Voltaire.” Klemmer is also the surname of a famous jazz musician, whom Jelinek may have had in mind when she wrote her novel in the early 1980s, although this is debatable. More important is that another of Erika’s students is called Nápravník, who was a Czech conductor and was mentioned in this famous novel. In Czech (Jelinek is of Czech descent), nápravník is related to the words “correctional” and “corrector,” suggesting both a prison and a teacher, as Erika is certainly both. Yet Erika is not some sort of aspiring dominatrix, nor does she reflect Austrian society's alleged emphasis on discipline and excellence (you can foresee down what darksome path that leads), but a woman terrifyingly alone and closing the gap on middle age. Somehow her soul’s torment is supposed to be mitigated by a set of rather banal urges, when that is precisely her only quality that has nothing to do with art. But Huppert's performance is so outstanding that we try to battle through the film despite our repulsion. Maybe the last twenty minutes or so are best watched on fast forward; then again, perhaps there is no better way to experience Erika's slow burn than to endure what she endures down to the final frame. As one of her students sings (from Schubert's Der Wegweiser) in perfect summation:
But I have done nothing so wrong
That I should avoid the human throng.
What kind of foolish desire
Drives me tow'rd the wastelands' mire?