PRINT November 2017



Michael Haneke, The Piano Teacher, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes. Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) and Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel).

“FROM THE START, pianists have an uphill battle to become good musicians, because of the essentially mechanical nature of their instrument,” the critic Nicholas Spice once wrote of Glenn Gould. “Where string players, wind players and singers are obliged to involve their bodies and their breathing in their technique, pianists can sit at their keyboards like computer operators.” If the piano is a kind of machine, one could say that hands—famously fetishized by Michael Haneke’s cool gaze in The Piano Teacher—are the link by which the pianist yokes herself to the machine. Or, better, they’re the conduit through which the pianist transmogrifies into a mechanism. Hands are also contradictory and catalytic. Genderless as instruments of sex, they help facilitate the bluntest acts of violence and the subtlest acts of human love.

Hand fetishists are rarer than those who are obsessed with feet—the term for the former is chirophile. (In cinema, the term for a foot fetishist is “Quentin Tarantino.”) The story of a middle-aged piano teacher whose repression has allowed her sexuality to mutate, as if in reaction to an unseen pressure, Haneke’s harsh, chirophiliac sado-melodrama was released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in September.The teacher, Erika Kohut, is played with near-robotic skill by Isabelle Huppert. I mean this as the highest compliment. Thrilling in their kink and maudlin in their manner, her fixations still appear unusual; now, they also look like prescient expressions of our alienated and dissociative age.

The hands are laid on time and time again, quite fast, and hard. “You should have your hands chopped off,” shrieks her mother when they fight. “I wouldn’t soil my hands,” her suitor says when she reveals her masochism—“one doesn’t touch your kind, even with gloves on.” Erika’s sole act of dubious mercy is a violent one: Foreseeing an oppressive future, an exacting mother just like hers, she fills a nervous student’s duffel pocket with shattered glass, leaving the girl’s right hand maimed. “His hands should be chopped off,” Erika’s mother says, because she cannot know the perpetrator isn’t male. All desire, like warmed-up putty, carries fingerprints. The whorls on Erika’s are from her mother, with whom she lives in an arrangement reminiscent of a prison or a sitcom, or a lesbian relationship. (There may be some whorls from her father, too—a madman. He dies in an institution while his daughter is out peering into steamed-up windows, pissing next to rocking cars for kicks at some grim-looking drive-in.) Erika—who wears red leather gloves outside the house as if preserving something, maybe her chastity, for her piano keys—demonstrates a push-me-pull-you attitude to sex in general. A less nuanced way of saying this might be to call her hypocritical; but in sex, and even more so sadomasochism, I’m not sure the term applies. Her dream is to be hog-tied and debased, but on her terms and at her own instruction. Prior to a brutal “love” affair with her blond, jockish student, we see Erika huff semen from a tissue in a porno booth, as if she’s trying to chloroform herself. She keeps a razor blade with which to cut her labia.

Setting ground rules for her younger lover, Walter, Erika suggests that wanting her to love is like expecting tenderness from an automaton. “I have no feelings,” she informs him. “Get that into your head. And if I ever do, they won’t win out over my intelligence.” On Schubert, she is more revealing—his compositional dynamics, like hers, “range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft.” Nobody who dons a cream-colored blouse when she stabs herself, or keeps her bondage gear behind a stack of Vogues, is untheatrical. Scenes of Erika at the piano are filmed full-body or at middle distance, unlike typical portrayals in which close-ups of hands are used to suture in musician body doubles. Feeling tricked, I wondered how they did it. The actual answer is simple, with the razor in this instance being Occam’s: Huppert plays piano in real life—and well, if not exactly virtuosically.

Such crystalline expressions of femme nihilism seem to draw Huppert, who this past year starred in Elle, a film so much like this one, albeit based on the idea that comedy is tragedy plus time, that she’s said her characters are half twins. Susan Sontag once described her as “a total artist.” For all the times she’s been called “cold” or “masklike” or “impassive” by reviewers, Huppert is perfectly equipped to write novellas with her eyebrows or her fine, small mouth. When Erika watches Walter play, her fingers scratch each other, masturbatory and furtive; when she hides her razor, she is performing a ritual in miniature. Huppert excavates and excavates. She gets inside. Beneath the skin, the heart is said to resemble a bloodied fist: a dexterous, violent, vulnerable machine.

The Piano Teacher was recently released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray.

Philippa Snow is a writer living in London. She is the features editor of Modern Matter magazine.