I've been in a bit of a movie rut lately. For whatever reason (there are many, I suppose) I've had a difficult time focusing on anything, and films that aren't at least in some way kind of engaging have totally failed to register with me at all, which some have suggested is more a fault of the films, and not of me, but I sort of like to pride myself on being able to watch just about anything, so when I can't, it's kind of a bummer. But then again I guess you can only watch so many mediocre films before you break, and really what's the point? It's not like there aren't good films out there that I haven't seen. Anyway, I haven't been feeling especially compelled to plumb the depths of arcane media of late, for better or for worse.
At the very least, this cinematic ennui I've been experiencing has led me to watch a few decent films that I might have put off in the past for something more obscure, and that's led to a few gems that had been hiding in plain sight. One of these films was Michael Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER, from 2001. Initially, I was hesitant to approach Haneke's films. He seemed to me like the kind of deliberately obtuse, confrontational for the sake of being controversial filmmaker that would grate my nerves. Last year, however, I broke down and checked out his film BENNY'S VIDEO, from 1992, and both versions of FUNNY GAMES, and was reasonably impressed by all of them. I only took as long a break between watching those films and getting at the rest of his filmography as I did for fear of being sort of overwhelmed. That's just me being kind of a movie pussy, I guess (although in my defense, or perhaps to my detriment, I did watch a double bill of CALIGULA and SALO in the interim, so I couldn't be that much of a pussy. I guess there are varying degrees).
Anyway, THE PIANO TEACHER helped lift me out of my funk a little bit. It's an engaging, difficult film, and one which finds Haneke following several different threads. On the surface, it's a not entirely unfamiliar French film about repression, sex and obsessive love. Isabelle Huppert plays a repressed music professor who, upon meeting a cocky young student who catches her fancy, begins expressing her long-denied sexual impulses in violent ways. The young man, in turn, is both attracted and repulsed by her desires, and is eventually driven to violence himself by her inability to commit to anything resembling a normal sexual relationship.
I feel as though I've seen many films like this, although none specifically come to mind, but that European tales of tragic, obsessive love and lust that end in violence more or less abound. And I feel like Haneke was aware of this as well, and played the film, at least in part, somewhat tounge in cheek. The violent aspects of Huppert's sexuality are so over the top, and she approaches them in such a matter-of-fact way, almost clinically, that it's hard not to find some absurdity and humor in what's on the screen. Even the title is a bit of a joke, as Huppert's character is not just a spinster-ish piano instructor, but in fact a professor of music with a prestigious conversatory.
At the same time, THE PIANO TEACHER manages to resonate emotionally as well. It's a disturbing film. The sexual violence that Huppert enacts upon herself, and demands her lover enact upon her, is devastating. Towards the end, when the lover breaks and attempts, in a fit of lustful insanity, to actually care out Huppert's wishes, she, and we the audience, discover that she really didn't want what she thought she did, her desire for violence resulting from an inability to process emotion, to understand love or to cope with her own sexuality. It's both moving and painful to watch, and result in the film's final moment, which is unexpected and discomforting.
In some ways, I find Haneke's filmmaking similar to that of Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, Haneke's cinema is cool and measured, somewhat sterile yet susceptable to a very visceral human element. Like Kubrick, Haneke has a sly, sometimes wicked sense of humor. And like the best of Kubrick's work, and I would say the best films in general, the best of Haneke is not especially obvious. In THE PIANO TEACHER, unlike FUNNY GAMES, he does not go to great pains to make explicit exactly what he's getting out, some engagement and interpreation is required on behalf of the viewer. Huppert, it should be said, is esentially flawless in her role here, which certainly requires constructing a complex emotional framework for a character who is not immediately identifiable.
I plan on watching Hakene's CACHE next.