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The Piano Teacher

I love SBS and its plethora of world movies which bring the whole gambit of human emotions and drama right before you. Some of these are films I would never had access to in India for their themes, explicit scenes and blatant dialogues, and yet so powerful that they leave you with either a feel good or a feel bad taste.

Last night, I watched a brilliant French classic, La Pianiste or The Piano Teacher, played by one of the most brilliant French actresses Isabelle Huppert. The film had no feel good factor. It only left me thinking and thinking.

Piano teacher Professor Erika Kohut is a plain-looking middle-aged spinster, who lives with her mother who dominates and controls her life in the way young mothers do of their teenage kids. She goes to the extent of going through her stuff - bags, clothes - to find out what she has been up to, which often leads to violent confrontation between the two, only to make up and cry at the end in their shared, claustrophobic bedroom. But Erica‘s only consistent relationship in life is that between her and her obsessive mother.

As a music teacher at a Viennese conservatory, Erika is a genius but she is serious and unsympathetic. And there is a sexual kinkiness about this gifted teacher. She looks for unnatural satisfactions - in cheap sex video parlours where she sniffs used napkins lying in the bin, in car parks prying on couples making love, and in the bathroom of her house where she finds a queer pleasure in mutilating her genitals with a blade and then rushing to the dining table as if she has just freshened up.

Erika’s world is confronted when she finds herself pursued by a young, handsome student Walter Klemmer (played by gorgeous Benoit Magimel), infatuated by her talent. When Klemmer expresses himself to her in the toilet of the conservatory, there follows an erotic session between the two but Erika refuses to have sex and instead tells Klemmer that he has to play by her rules which she would pen down in a letter.

One night Klemmer follows Erika and finds himself in her room much against the horror of her mother who chides her later for bringing men home ‘as neighbours would talk’. Klemmer’s hopes of a natural romance wanes as he is forced to read the letter in which Erika pleads for sexual perversity – to be slapped, hit and gagged, licked in the ass, et al. A shocked Klemmer calls her sick and needing help. “I did love you once,” he tells her and leaves the room. In the end, it is Erika chasing Klemmer seeking for bondage, pain and humiliation as opposed to conventional lovemaking. One night, Klemmer turns up and violently makes love to her while her screaming mother is locked up in another room. But Erika’s experience is far from her conceived imagination.  She is left battered and crying.

Arriving to watch a musical, she lets her mother proceed to the hall with a young student whom she had left incapacitated in the hand - in a fit of jealousy as Klemmer was showing her attention. Waiting for Klemmer’s arrival, she catches a glimpse of him waving at her as he nonchalantly walks up the stairs of the auditorium with a group of friends. Then, as a remorse for all things done, she stabs herself and walks out of the theatre. The conundrum left by the director for the audience to wonder -  did Erika die or did she go to a porn shop? Like all great cinema, we are left to judge.

The movie is not a titillating sex show.  It has a Freudian layer of power, sex, repression, art. Erika is a brilliant music teacher but her brilliance is limited to her art and her knowledge of it, her real life is one of suppression aided by the fact that she lives with her mother who stomps any show of independence in her. Klemmer came as the voice of sanity and reason in her life but she was not able to balance her perceived world and reality. Art and life, truly, does not mix. As someone said nature and life never change, but art does because it is a human perception.

I didn’t love the film for the simple reason that there was no happy ending. I wished, like all romantics, she was reformed and lived happily ever after with Klemmer immersed in music. But parts of the film has stayed with me because I can relate Erika’s life to so many spinsters in India. They do not, of course, live in the perceived world that Erika does or show the sexual kinkiness but there is repression. And the repression comes from dominant families who think their single status does not give them the licence to free thinking or lifestyle or the choice to pursue love interests. Doesn't continued repression lead to some extremities? How would many of these spinsters be handling them? The other looming question: how far is a man willing to go to be with the woman he wants?

P.S: Apparently, the French film industry gives filmakers the freedom to experiment with sexuality and the audience go for these movies. Unlike America, Australia or the UK, the French do their stuff best than anyone else exploring subjects that are provocative, real and taboo for the rest of us. French director Catherine Breillat says,"As artists we are coward if we cannot do that." Some of these films are a bit uncomfortable to watch but you know that they do want something that is real and examine sex in a serious way.There is an artistic and social reason there: sexual perversity is not good nor will free sex save the world but exploring what is there in the deep recesses of the human mind does help get rid of the fears.


Thangjam said…
For what it's worth the french do push the envelope. If you get the chance see 'Irreversible'. It has probably one of the worst/best rape scenes ever filmed.It gave me chills watching this film but I suppose these things do happen in real life and somehow the french seems to be the only ones audacious enough to make a movie out of it.
Indira said…
yes have seen 'irreversible'. and i think it was one of the movies where people actually walked out of the theatres because they could not take it... compare that to the other extreme hollywood,nothing can also beat their ability to depict what is gory!!
Just wow, reading this!!! Loved every word, and how it has been woven! <3
Just wow, Indira!! I loved every word, and how it has been woven into the fabric! This impresses me much! <3

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