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Rhapsody in Black 

'The Piano Teacher' is no merry melody.

Having finally completed my work on a chemical process that turns ordinary household lint into the Village People, I betook myself to the cinema in hopes of viewing an amusing divertissement such as our contemporary filmmakers are known to provide. With the lines overlong for such outings as The Big Computer-Animated Dog and His Heroin Addicted Friend and The Spy Who Can't Remember His Name, I found myself drifting into a smallish cinema that, I am told, is of the ilk known as an "art house," a name seemingly belied by the fact that its walls were festooned not with the works of Dali and DaVinci, but with printed posters advertising cerebral films foisted upon our shores by foreign firms and alien interests.

Thus it was that I found The Piano Teacher, a cinematic production by one Mr. Michael Haneke. Let me, in this brief paragraph, expound a bit upon the celebrated Mr. Haneke. Though I have never actually encountered his concrete personage, he has, nonetheless, caused in me undue discomfort the likes of which I have seldom suffered. This he did insofar as I once viewed a work from his ouvre called, with due irony, Funny Games. Said film, while presenting almost no violence within the confines of its visual frame, was the most dreadfully and discomfitingly violent film I've yet viewed. Ingeniously, Mr. Haneke places all of the slaughterous doings just beyond the camera's gaze, robbing the audience of the vulgar pleasures afforded by such sanguinary spectacles. Indeed, in what I think is one of the most insightful moments in modern cinema, there is a scene in which a woman is forced by two callow thugs to unclothe herself before her family. Whereas an American director would have "treated" the audience to the salacious sight of this woman's denuded form, Haneke's camera remained tightly upon the woman's face, thus recording only her fear, and not her figure. This scene, I believe, showed exactly what is wrong with filmmaking on this side of the Atlantic: any American director would claim to have been concerned with the character's emotional state, but would have hired an actress on the basis of her fleshly charms, and then focused on said charms for the prurient pleasures of his barbarous audience, thus foregoing the sympathetic intensity of the scene in favor of the lower emotions and their easier enticements.

So, having had some familiarity with Mr. Haneke's productions, I steeled myself for what could be a difficult viewing period. Indeed, The Piano Teacher is, at times, disturbing, though never so severely as the unspeakable Funny Games.

The Piano Teacher stars aging ex-ingénue Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a teacher, not surprisingly, of the art of piano playing. Ms. Kohut abides with her mother in a small flat in a great European metropolis, though she little savors the rich offerings of the grande ville. Rather, she passes her time in the cruel beratement of her students and in secretive visits to the city's institutions of pornographic and illicit trade.

Although apparently a virgin, Ms. Kohut harbors a hidden desire for sexual abuse, a longing that finds it release only in the oft-times violent dressing-downs she regularly receives from her unloving mother. Indeed, Ms. Kohut's filial piety for her mother expresses itself most inappropriately, as the two share a bed, and the bed is perhaps not all that they share.

It happens, though, that at a recital Ms. Kohut encounters an alarmingly attractive young man who, taken with her vast stores of musical talent, finds himself drawn to her. He offers her his love, but she, fearful and somewhat perverse in her ways, uses his attraction only to torture him.

At some point, the metaphorical tables are symbolically turned, and Kohut learns exactly why her fantasies were perhaps best left in the realm of the imaginal.

Now, if the thought or image of sexual battery, intergenerational lesbian incest and self-mutilation, amongst other unsavory episodes, is not over-straining for you, and you think that artistic merit might overcome personal repugnance, then I would heartily recommend The Piano Teacher to you. Viewed as a work of art it is indeed a success, though not so extremely so as Funny Games. Still, it is far more viewable than that last of Mr. Haneke's films to reach our shores, and perhaps his limiting himself to such things as blood-drenched pianists and pools of vomit is a nod to our country's more delicate sensibilities.

On the other hand, some there are here in the Americas who would find The Piano Teacher somewhat slow in developing, and occasionally dull in the viewing. No doubt such is the way of the more languidly paced presentations of our European cineastes, and if you are familiar with their output, you will not herein be surprised by the pacing.

If you can tolerate both this unhurriedness of tempo and the distastefulness of the topic, then Piano Teacher might reward you with a different kind of filmic pleasure than you might partake of at, say, such works as The Oddly Numbered Star Wars Part The Second, Which Is, Strangely, The Fifth Film In Said Series, or the currently popular mutant Bildungsroman Man-Spider. If your tastes run more towards the rewardingly showy, I would urge you to pass on this film, though, and perhaps look into the upcoming "blockbuster" season for such foretold delights as Harry Potter and the Creepy Priest or The Focus-Grouped Secrets of the Middle-Brow Sisterhood.

More by James DiGiovanna

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