Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:18 pm 
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Embracing our universal sickness

Haneke's 'Seventh Continent' is the most depressing movie I've seen in my whole life but after 'La Pianiste' I would not want to miss anything this uncompromising Austrian director does. I'm not sure the movie would work without the great, haughty, fierce, indomitable, unforgettable Isabelle Huppert. Often Huppert has been cold and cruel and elegant and desirable, but never has she been so sick and twisted as here, and she goes the limit. There is no more fearless and confident actress in movie history and none I'd go so out of my way to watch.

I gritted my teeth and entered the theater expecting no fun. The opening credits won me over, though. The way the sound ends when the names come on, between each vignette, show an ability to make you take notice, to make the routine fresh. Each vignette is different; in each Erika Kohut, the piano teacher (Huppert) is cruel to another piano student in a different way. I could see something compulsively watchable coming. When the razor-in-the-bathroom scene came, I looked away: I'd been warned. Then I peeked: it wasn't so bad. Most of all, it was swift and methodical; she's as dispassionately cruel toward herself as she is toward others. It's a job to get done in time for dinner: mom's calling.

Besides Huppert, the young actor who plays Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) is remarkable. Like his character, he appears ordinary, good but not great looking, too confident, boringly relaxed, but he surprises you by keeping up with Huppert every step of the way just as his character does. These two come together in ways I've not seen before on screen. The transgressive sex scenes are surprising from minute to minute and both characters are dynamic beyond all expectation. Both are conceived as contradictions. Erika is brilliant about music, insane about human relations. Walter is a normal guy, a hockey coach, a future engineer, but he plays piano recklessly and brilliantly and his musical thinking is mature. He is ready for the battleground that is Huppert's Erika and when they clash in horrible sexual warfare, both are changed. He pops back, but is drawn into her sadomasochistic games. She loses it and is going through a series of meltdowns, yet she remains visibly enough in control to be expected to play piano at a major recital when she has disabled her female student. Huppert is remarkable, but Magimel is completely authentic in all the most intense and ruthlessly intimate sex scenes: he knows exactly what he needs to do.

'La Pianiste' in other words is actor-driven, so when it won the Grand Prize at Cannes it was inevitable that Huppert and Magimel would get the Best Actress and Best Actor awards. It's hard to conceive the movie without them. The Grand Prize also signals recognition of Haneke as a major European filmmaker. Is it a desire to transcend his Austrian culture and become more pan-European that has led him to make his last two movies in French, and set 'Code Unknown,' also a controversial film, in Paris? Why specifically does everyone in 'La Pianiste,' which takes place mainly at the Vienna Conservatory, speak French? To accommodate Huppert? To modulate the cold Teutonic tone of the Austrian novel the movie's based on? Or perhaps - my theory - to make the whole story more abstract - because it's not just about sadomasochistic craziness but about cloying family ties, frustration, and abusive mentors, especially piano teachers? Rumor has it that piano teachers are sometimes as cruel as this. They just don't have Huppert's chutzpah, froideur, and elegant sexiness. In a way this is a fantasy about what a really, really mean piano teacher might be like in her spare time if our worst nightmares about her were true. This story is, certainly, about our worst nightmares, our repressions, the things we've imagined that we don't want to talk about, the sickness in our relationship with our mother and with our lovers. To deal with desperation and human limits is not to step away completely from everyday experience but to examine it under a microscope. Haneke takes us to places we have been before in our minds and in our emotions.

Walter (Magimel) is the voice of normality. He's a nice guy, a friendly, self confident, healthy, helpful athlete: he's a little like Wayne Gretsky. But though he laughs when he reads Erika's kinky, sick instructions for their sexual relations, then tells her she disgusts him and he will have no more to do with her, he's in love with her, so he winds up little by little starting to follow the instructions in spite of himself. Because of his admiration and love, he becomes another person. 'La Pianiste' is about crossing the line, losing control in a world (like a conservatory of music) where control is the watchword. Walter laughs for us; he expresses our discomfort with Erika's insanity, and thus, as over-the-top as the movie becomes, we stay with it and disquietingly within it.

This is a transgressive analysis of emotion that's true to general human experience. I've been emotionally strung out with a lover (who hasn't?) and all this craziness spoke to my own emotional memories. 'La Pianiste' has disgusting things in it, and I'm no masochist - not even as a moviegoer - but this is a terrific movie, perhaps a great one.

June 31, 2002

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