The Piano Teacher

I just finished watching La Pianiste, and I am so utterly confused about what I think of this movie. The first half of the film is riveting, and the first sex scene between Isabelle Huppert’s character, Erika, and her student, Walter, is incredibly hot — she jerks him off in a bathroom, but refuses to allow him to touch her, and instructs him repeatedly to face me, take it out, don’t turn away from me, don’t make a sound, and finally, denies him climax, telling him that if he touches himself, she’ll never come back. He complains and groans, pleads and calls her “bitch,” but still obeys her every instruction. Did I mention that halfway through, she stops and opens the bathroom door, and stares him down with the challenge: do you dare? I do.

I got chills.

But then, her character unravels. The delicious cruelty turns out to be an inability to relate to anyone in a remotely human way; her strict discipline and testing of her suitor turns out to not be sexual play, but social ineptitude — she just doesn’t know how to do anything but instruct and give orders. Or perhaps she’s just playing with him as she wants to be played with. Because as it turns out, her deeper sexual fantasies involve submission and being overpowered — being bound, gagged, and beaten — and it’s unclear whether or not she’s ever expressed them to anyone before, let alone played them out with another person. She writes her student a long and incredibly detailed letter about what she’d like to do with him: her requests are so specific, so precise, that they almost come across as a list of demands. Walter, sadly, is disgusted by her fantasies, and rejects her.

He’s also angry with her, rightfully so, for having first scorned and spurned him repeatedly, then leading him on with hot bathroom sex, then abruptly stopping and refusing to have anything to do with him unless it’s within the carefully dictated parameters of her sexual fantasies. Then, rejected by him once already, she goes to him and begs for forgiveness, then seduces him, but seconds after beginning to go down on him, she gags on his cock and vomits, which makes him feel even more rejected. “It’s never made a woman puke before,” he says. That night, he shows up at her place late at night, and whether out of revenge, frustration, or an honest attempt to make a last effort at actually pleasing her, rapes her, while saying repeatedly, “this is what you wanted, right? Is this how you imagined it?”

There are a lot of ways to interpret this scene — is it just another media portrayal of BDSM as something inherently harmful? Are we supposed to think that her fantasies were somehow “too much” for her, that she didn’t really want to be bound and beaten? Or are viewers supposed to understand that she only wanted to play out her fantasies in a safe and controlled environment, and for him to hit her out of love, not frustration and rage? Is the average person watching this movie going to come away from it thinking “it’s sad how incapable she was of communicating what she wanted in a reasonable way, and how judgmental he was of her desires”? Or are they going to think, “she was deeply disturbed and obviously had a pathological sexuality, and it’s sad that she thought she wanted to be raped, because obviously she didn’t want that at all”?

Rrrrgh. I’m both fascinated and frustrated by the inscrutability of this movie and her character…I may have to go read the book, now.

3 comments so far

  1. Brina on

    I was wondering if the Piano Teacher is an example of a domme who is also a masochist. I always wondering what that looks like until I saw that film. Maybe I’m just guessing, I haven’t read the book either.

  2. subversive_sub on

    I know, that’s how I read it at first, too. But the nature of the fantasies she describes seem more like she’s looking to be controlled, used, etc. than just looking for pain — especially the bit about wanting him to pick out what clothes she should wear. I kinda like that her character’s sexuality is so muddy in that way, but I wonder if her earlier “controlling” behavior is supposed to be seen as something sexual or not.

  3. Linda on

    I just finished watching the movie and it really impressed me too.
    I was especialy interested in the way power and fear are related when it comes to sexual / emotional relationships. Erika, the main character, clearly was afraid of feelings and intimate relationships and could not deal with the games of power they originate.
    Her mother shows her “love” for her by dominating, and Erika can therefore not imagine love without domination, which scares her.
    I think the movie takes to an extreme something that is quite common, the fear of intimacy because of a fear of loosing control over a situation.

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