Continuing his thematic exorcism of demons lurking in civilized societies, Michael Haneke adapted Elfriede Jelinek’s novel into one of his most critically acclaimed films in the early 2000s. In fairness, the success of “The Piano Teacher” is as indebted to the remarkable central performance from Isabelle Huppert (her first for Haneke), who plays the tormented Erika with such uncanny aplomb and rattling verve that it’s likely the greatest performance ever given in a Haneke film (a thousand apologies to Emmanuelle Riva, but she’d probably agree). In public, Erika has the reputation of being an exceptionally gifted pianist and ruthlessly strict instructor. But her private life is riddled with emotional and psychological pain, which she expresses through perverse outings, self-mutilation and a patently eerie relationship with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). When she meets young Walter (Benoît Magimel, more than holding his own next to the towering Huppert), her private life gets a lot more sadomasochistic and sexual, climaxing in a frightfully distressing rape scene, the implications of which would give even the most poker-faced psychoanalyst a permanent twitch. Haneke’s signature surgical style distances “The Piano Teacher” from aggrandizement and delves into painfully realistic psychological realms you’ll rarely want to visit again but that will undoubtedly shake you to your core. Similar to Cavani’s ‘Night Porter,’ “The Piano Teacher” uses Viennese high culture as a mask to hide a much darker place, where pain and gratification go hand in hand in attempt to reach out for some just-out-of-reach happiness.
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