Paul Verhoeven’s Elle can be understood as a spin on the representational politics of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert the link between the two films. Huppert is belittled, humiliated, abused, raped, and forsaken in The Piano Teacher, while she’s raped, emboldened, defiant, seductive, and finally deadly in Elle. As poles of 21st-century European art cinema released 15 years apart, each offers an uncompromising, variegated assessment of how men systematically abuse women.
In Haneke’s film, the main perpetrator of such transgressions is Walter (Benoît Magimel), a pianist whose initial infatuation with his piano teacher, Erika (Huppert), turns to disgust, aggression, and rape once he discovers her predilection for S&M. Haneke either depicts Erika’s torment with distant, static takes or sequence shots, an approach that embraces sensationalism, as when cinematographer Christian Berger captures Erika vomiting in close-up at the end of a long take. The Piano Teacher operates like a machine, calculated and efficient, and the effect proves torturous in its absence of empathy.
Haneke employs long takes for maximal dramatic consequence, not unlike action filmmakers use elaborate set pieces to stage impressive visual effects. In one of the film’s most shocking sequences (there are no shortage of them), Erika marches backstage at a concert hall, crushes some glass with her foot, and then places the shards into the coat pocket of Anna (Anna Sigalevitch), her top student, who’s supposed to lead their conservatory’s concert in a matter of days. It’s the first time, almost halfway into the film, that Erika has enacted violence against someone. Prior to this, her apathy suggests that the worst she could do to someone is glare at them in frustration or derision. The vacillation between looking and acting lies at the core of The Piano Teacher, and it’s one of Haneke’s most concentrated treatises on the subject.
In addition to contemplating how looking creates dilemmas for his characters, Haneke integrates metatextual aspects on the topic as well. When Erika goes to a local drive-in theater, it’s not to watch a film; she’s on the prowl for a couple having sex so that she can watch them and then urinate, as a form of climax, beside the couple’s car. Before she leaves the concessions area, Haneke frames her against a pair of movie posters—for 2000’s Frequency and The Skulls. That Haneke, an Austrian, directs Huppert, who’s French, in an art film featuring hardcore sex, and whose character attends an anachronistic drive-in that plays the latest Hollywood pap, indicates how the act of watching, whether as voyeur or consumer, is, on a fundamental level, a complex transaction. As Erika walks among the cars without sound emanating from the bright, surrounding movie screens, the setting suggests a graveyard for her to roam and search for even a semblance of excitement to momentarily obscure a past seemingly lost to mistakes, daydreams, and fear.
There are complex themes at play in this scene. Erika, who at this point seems unable to achieve sexual satisfaction with a partner, needs the potential consequences of transgressing a public space to arouse herself. But Haneke is also implying here how filmgoers use the public space to engage their own desires, whether carnal (like the couple having sex in their car) or vicarious (anyone attending a screening of The Piano Teacher, perhaps). Yet the filmmaker, as in Funny Games, places himself above the viewer by relishing his role as omniscient puppeteer. In doing this, it’s as if Haneke claims an exemption from being implicated in the pleasures of watching.
The screenplay is thus a procession of humiliations for Erika. In Walter’s presence, she’s physically and mentally abused; she also cuts herself and, when fed up with her mother (Annie Girardot), performs a mocking gesture of incest on her. The litany of taboo-busting moments becomes more tiresome and transparent than shocking. When Erika finally plunges a knife into her chest at the film’s conclusion, one cannot be certain whether Haneke intends this as high camp or a serious depiction of an act approximating ritual suicide. One might also sense such an answer is less meaningful to Haneke than having achieved his patented form of sadistic equivocation.
The HD digital transfer looks clean and sharply rendered; there are no visible signs of scratches or debris. But considering the vibrant 2K transfer that Code Unknown received in 2015, and that 4K technology exists to offer top-of-the-line scans of contemporary films, one can't help but feel somewhat shortchanged here. Having said that, the balance and subtle variations between muted colors is exemplary. Likewise, the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack clearly conveys of dialogue, music, and sound effects in the film's intricate combination of synch and postsynch sound. Overall, this transfer is a considerable improvement over Kino Lorber's 2002 DVD.
A pair of new 2017 interviews with Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert lead a fine, if modest, assortment of supplements. Haneke distinguishes the differences between pornography and obscenity, saying that he always tries to make his films obscene without being pornographic. He also explains why he prefers sequence shots; the stock-room sex scene is highlighted in particular and provides useful insight into Haneke's thought process while conceiving a scene. He also discusses the history of the project itself: He had wanted to adapt the novel as his first film in the mid-1980s, and wasn't able to secure the rights (and Huppert) until almost 15 years later. Huppert explains her delight in playing Erika, who she finds to be one of the most complex characters of her career. Interestingly, Huppert passed on Funny Games in 1997, thinking it too extreme, and agreed to take this role before completely reading the script. After she finished, she said to herself: "Ooh la la!" Huppert also speaks in scene-selected commentary, which was recorded in 2001, and explains her approach to acting in several key scenes. Aspiring filmmakers should get use out of behind-the-scenes footage of Haneke and Huppert, particularly as the filmmaker and actress work during a postsynch session to perfect a scene's sound design. Finally, the package includes the film's theatrical trailer and an essay by film scholar Moira Weigel.
Perhaps the defining performance of Isabelle Huppert’s career is now on vibrant display in the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Piano Teacher.