Austrian director Michael Haneke, best known in the UK for "Funny Games" and "Code Unknown", is in traditional hard-hitting mode for "The Piano Teacher" (La Pianiste), a psychological drama based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek.
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is in her late 30s, teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory, and lives with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). Theirs is a love-hate relationship, with the mother having a stranglehold on every aspect of her daughter's life.
When one of her students, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), pursues her with the aim of beginning an affair, Kohut coldly rejects him. This only makes Klemmer more determined, however, and Kohut eventually relents - but with conditions. She puts them down in a letter, the details of which lead to horrific consequences.
Haneke's take on the psychological drama ditches the flashback devices that might explain Kohut's nature. Simply shot with clever use of close-ups, together with a score predominantly comprising Schubert, he carves out Kohut's grim reality: a failed concert pianist with more than just one skeleton in the cupboard. Haneke - and Huppert - skilfully present a woman who has no power in, or over, her life.
The script has its flaws. While the isolated, stifled Kohut is credible, Klemmer's rapid transformation isn't plausible. However, take nothing away from the good performances by Huppert and Magimel, who both earned acting gongs at Cannes earlier this year.
By opting for a bleak finale, Haneke ensures his film remains a dark, intelligent, and thought-provoking examination of female repression.
In French with English subtitles.
"The Piano Teacher" is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th November 2001.