From 1977's The Lacemaker to 1998's The School Of Flesh, Isabelle Huppert has specialized in playing seemingly impenetrable women who gradually become unhinged, revealing depths of emotion only barely suggested on the surface. For this reason, she was the obvious (if not the only) choice for the title role in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, a viscerally punishing study of repression and masochism, carried out with the utmost discretion and chilling reserve. A deserving winner of the Best Actress award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, Huppert controls every movement with frightening precision, wearing her face like an eggshell that sheathes her immense vulnerability. Haneke (Funny Games, Code Unknown), who doesn't make movies so much as theses in light, tends to look at people like specimens under the microscope, so he always relies heavily on his actors to humanize his cold, objective gaze. Without Huppert, The Piano Teacher might have been implausible and silly, a gratuitous torture chamber with transparent psychology and little connection to reality; with her, it's horrific and devastating. A deeply repressed single woman approaching middle age, Huppert teaches at a prestigious Vienna conservatory by day and returns at night to an apartment where she still lives (and sleeps) with controlling mother Annie Girardot. In the space between work and home, she slips into a local sex shop and sniffs discarded tissues in the peepshow booth, and carries out experiments in masochism, including an already-infamous scene involving a razor blade and the audience's imagination. When she unexpectedly attracts the romantic interest of handsome young prodigy Benoît Magimel, Huppert finds her private depravities dangerously exposed, which draws both parties into a sadomasochistic relationship with a tenuous balance of power. In the early scenes, when Huppert wriggles out from under her mother's tight reins and goes off on her sordid routine, the psychology seems almost insultingly clear, and it's simplified further by Haneke's grim, antiseptic style. But once Magimel enters the picture, the film becomes much more ambiguous, not only in the wrenching power struggle, but also in the way the overprotective nature of Huppert's mother no longer seems pathological. On the few occasions when Huppert's rigid façade crumbles to dust, The Piano Teacher exposes emotions so incredibly raw that they trump all the mechanized violence and degradation the film could ever dream up.
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