Sadomasochism is one of the great, unexplored areas of modern cinema. If it is discussed at all, it is usually in the context of severe mental illness, or as one of many attributes burdening a diseased serial killer. All too often, it is dismissed as a tawdry joke; a marginalized affliction better left to criminologists or asylum doctors. Few among us could ever believe that such desires or actions could be pursued by otherwise “normal” individuals; people who inhabit affluent neighborhoods, hold prestigious jobs, or remain articulate, intelligent, and yes, law-abiding citizens. Perhaps it is difficult to relate to the sexual pleasures associated with violence or degradation, but I would imagine that in our more honest moments, there would be candid, yet unapologetic, revelations of secret desires – the need to be beaten savagely with a bur-infested belt, for example. Or perhaps we seek the hot wax treatment on our nipples? Or high-heeled shoes upon our scrotum? I am not one to judge the sexual peccadilloes of my fellow man, and with The Piano Teacher, we have a glorious, mature film unwilling to make those same judgments.
At the center of it all, we have Erika Kohut, played by the luminous Isabelle Huppert, who should be remembered at Oscar time. She is a music teacher at a conservatory in Vienna and her methods, to say the least, are cold, callous, and unforgiving. She presides over her classes (and students) with a brutal intensity, enforcing standards that few could ever hope to meet. She is utterly intolerant of even the slightest shade of incompetence, although one could say that outside of perfection, she would prefer that her pupils remove themselves from her sight. No cracks are observed until she meets a young student, Walter (played by Benoit Magimel), who catches her attention. However, lest you think the film is a typical Hollywood production involving Mr. Chips-like sentimentality (“the cold woman is shown her humanity by a precocious young lad”), the attraction is anything but typical or heartwarming. She feels challenged by this young man and wants him to participate in her humiliation; a brutal game of sexual role-playing and dependency.
All of this might sound slight and predictable, but it is handled with the grace and subtlety of a fine poem. In a masterstroke, we are spared the usual psychoanalysis relating to Erika’s sexual tastes. We do not witness childhood flashbacks of rape and abuse, nor do we hear backroom confessions of unfulfilled longings or damaging relationships. We do, however, have a character of contradictions and complexity; a woman who has a bizarre relationship with her mother (they live together despite Erika’s advancing age and even share a bed), with needs we must interpret and analyze, rather than following the instructions of the filmmaker.
Two examples of such unexplained behavior involve sexual gratification and cruelty. Erika visits an adult bookstore and despite running into a student, she displays no embarrassment, nor does she make a quick exit. She even waits among a crowd of men for her turn in a peep show booth. It is her that we see a character unlike any we have seen before. She is strong, confident, and unwavering; it is the men who fumble and look away with flushed cheeks. Upon entering the booth, she passionately inhales the aroma of semen on a used tissue, seemingly gratified and complete. Who is this woman? Why does she take these risks? Still, we are intrigued, because she is a woman in a “man’s domain,” so to speak, but also because we cannot make immediate connections between the sexual behavior and anything in her personal or professional life. The other scene involves Erika placing a broken glass in the pocket of a student at a concert. Perhaps Erika senses the competition (and talent) of a fellow woman, but nothing is made overt. The young woman severely injures her hand and as we watch Erika for her reaction, we do not see giddy delight, nor do we see shame. Instead, the action appears to be quite routine; yet another quiet victory for Erika’s psyche.
Erika and Walter’s relationship grows more intense, and in a scene of dark humor and quiet sadness, Erika brings Walter home, only to have her mother attempt to interfere with the situation. Erika’s mother appears all too knowing of what might occur behind the locked door of the bedroom, and she insists on keeping them apart. Erika even moves furniture in front of the door to block her mother’s entrance. It is in this scene that Erika reveals her wishes to Walter. The audience is not given access to these desires, but based on Walter’s reaction, it is clear that they are on a level of perversion he could not possibly understand. Walter is stunned, yet Erika remains persistent; she needs to be brutalized, yet always in control (these are her needs after all). What motivates these desires? Self-hatred? The burden of genius? The need, despite holding a position of great respect and admiration, to feel as most women have felt throughout history, subservient and degraded in the company of men? We can hypothesize, yes, but it would be fruitless to expect closure in this instance. Even if an idea carried sufficient weight, it would serve only to undermine the mystery of Erika’s nature. Surely there are questions that do not have answers and when it comes to sexuality, such “answers” are rarely in the realm of the rational. As Woody Allen has said on many occasions, “The heart wants what it wants.”
In all, this is not a film about plot, but rather one of character and observation. This is most apparent at the “conclusion” of the film, which predictably left fellow patrons disgusted and frustrated (I do believe several of these literal-minded old geezers shouted their objections). I will not reveal the events that unfold at the end, but let it be said that there are no farewell concerts where all are redeemed, nor does love triumph over all. Instead, we are left with even more questions. And, in the best cinematic tradition, we can believe that the characters live on after the reel ends, facing the demons that stubbornly refuse to be resolved in the span of a few hours in the dark.
Special Ruthless Ratings
- Number of times I felt this was among the best films of the year: 5
- Number of times I realized, sadly, that the overwhelming majority of films released this year will be closer in content to The Master of Disguise: 12
- Number of times I have sniffed used tissue in a porno booth: 0
- Number of times, however, I have provided the necessary substance to allow others to indulge in that pursuit: 9