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The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001)

Directed by Michael Heneke

The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste)

The accolades for "The Piano Teacher" are inviting -- winner of not only the Jury Prize, but also Best Actor and Best Actress at Cannes in 2001. It stars one of France's top actresses, Isabelle Huppert. And the description of the story, using words like "lonely" and "desperate" and phrases like "secret world of obsession and desire" made me think that it was a fine piece of modern French cinema guaranteed to enrich me and win me culture points at the next cocktail party. I should have skipped the movie and gone straight to the cocktail party.

Writer/Director Michael Heneke has supposedly created a compelling character study of Erika, a respected piano instructor at a renowned music conservatory, bringing us into her personal life and showing us the effect she has on Walter, one of the students with whom she has an illicit affair. Is Erika lonely and desperate? Yes. Does she have a secret world of obsession and desire? Yes again. But here is a better description of Erika -- she's a masochistic, semen-sniffing, self-mutilating, cockteasing, mind-fucking, mother-kissing, student-maiming, suicidal psychopath. There, I just saved you two hours. Heneke should take a lesson (and a severe beating) from fellow director Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness"). Solondz is able to use the element of shock to much better effect and can reveal ugly, disturbing and even disgusting traits in his characters while managing to keep his audience interested in them. Heneke seems content to create a sequence of nauseating scenes without taking his characters and, as a result, his audience anywhere.

I don't know how this stomach-turner went over in the land where Jerry Lewis is worshipped, but I'm sure that it will do more to keep Americans happily lining up to see the current Hollywood schlockbuster than any press junket will. About three-quarters of the way through the film, one of the audience members got up and left the theater. As he walked out, he held his hand in front of the projector and angrily raised his middle finger. Shakespeare had it all wrong. Denmark is fine. There is, however, something very rotten in France and it's called "The Piano Teacher." -- Rating: $0.02

Mike Santoro -- copyright 2002

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