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Assumptions can really color a movie. Going in, I knew The Piano Teacher had been called everything from brilliant to disgusting, and I feared the latter. But why the discrepancy? did the “brilliant” people like disgusting things or did the “disgusting” people miss some hidden brilliance?

It’s Not The Economy, Stupid

Huppert gives Magimel a lesson from The Piano TeacherThe “disgusting” people are partly right. (Let me disclose here that the film has an NC-17 rating for a short scene in which a character watches a pornographic film. Beyond that, the film might have earned an R.) Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a figure of sexual repression, and her desires are quite abnormal. But the film is careful to frame these desires in a milieu which is so unnatural and stressful that some odd outlet seems inevitable.

Erika not only lives with her mother (she is 40 years old), she sleeps with her as well. There is nothing sexual about their sleeping together, and at first blush it seems like a sensible, practical, economical way to live.

But there is more than just economy at stake. Erika can’t go out in the evening without worrying her mother sick. And if she should fail to call, her mother punishes her as though she were a teenager. A deep maternal madness is hinted at when she admonishes Erika, our piano teacher, not to let any of her students outshine her when it comes to Schubert. In such a life it seems impossible for Erika to develop a normal, healthy life, much less a normal healthy sex life.

We are privy to a couple of Erika’s sexual outlets. Neither one makes sense, any more than a Catholic priest’s molestation of a child. But like the priest, Erika never learned about sex, either physically or emotionally. The few things that give her pleasure might seem “disgusting,” but given her repressive background, it may be all she knows.

Unnatural Conservatory

In her job, Erika is humorless, demanding, and practical. She wears her hair in a bun, a sensible skirt, and a green Mr. Rogers sweater that one imagines she’s been wearing her entire career. When someone bumps into her at the top of an escalator, she absentmindedly brushes off the imaginary dirt, ten paces later. When Freud coined the term “anal-retentive,” he was talking about people like Erika.

She works at an elite conservatory, which is a world unto itself with its own cult-like rules and expectations. She and her fellow high priests of music keep the composers of past centuries alive, even when the whole outside world is listening to a new song. The conservatory is so elite that the competition is fierce. A devastated girl, uncontrollably bawling, snot dripping, leaves a tryout over which Erika and the other professors presided. All the other applicants sit nervously, waiting to see whether their lives will be similarly ruined.

In Walks Walter

Among this crowd of applicants is a breath of fresh air named Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). Walter has a natural talent for the piano, so natural in fact that he even has time for friends and activities outside of music. He plays hockey with his athletic pals while the other applicants are playing scales.

Klemmer had seen Erika play at a recital before, and he even tried to make a pass at her, so his reasons to try out for the master class may be twofold. His tryout goes very well. In fact, the only judge in the room to object is Erika herself, who says that Klemmer won’t take his training as seriously as another student.

She is probably right. Klemmer seems not to be so serious, and that’s exactly what endears him to the audience and grounds The Piano Teacher in reality. Erika’s world is the remote island of the conservatory, and Walter is the first visitor who has a return ticket.

It’s All in the Mind

What follows is an outstanding dramatic story in which the conflict is unspoken and actions are unexplained. Because of this, the roles are very demanding, and both Huppert and Magimel give outstanding performances. (In fact, both Huppert and Magimel won best acting honors at Cannes for this film, causing the organizing committee to change the rules to keep this from happening again.)

Deep psychological desires and self-serving games are operating inside these characters’ heads, but all director Michael Haneke shows us is their outward behavior. So the makeout scene in the bathroom is actually Walter cracking through Erika’s shell. The awkward scene in her bedroom is actually Walter’s grounding in “reality” being tested. When Erika goes up the block to meet Walter at the hockey rink, she has really traveled thousands of miles, leaving her safe, comfortable island to bet her soul on love.

The second and third acts make The Piano Teacher one of the most dramatic films of the year, even if none of the drama is overt. Just thinking about it gives me chills. But be careful. The Piano Teacher may not have the same effect on you. Unless you’re completely and unreservedly open to it, you might dismiss this film as “disgusting.”