The Piano Teacher
Feeling and form
Is feeling more important than form? At one stage in The Piano Teacher central character Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) says to one of her students that "a wrong note in Beethoven is better than bad interpretation. You play only phrases. Ignore the structure and you'll ruin the sonata." Later on, when considering letting a student study at the Vienna Academy at which she teaches, she insists '"frankly I find his histrionics suspicious, or even unpleasant." None of the other teachers see this, but Erika's insistent. We sense that she has no truck with anybody who can extract from playing pleasure; what must be extracted is a certain type of pain. We could perhaps call this the pain of form to the detriment of feeling, with form imposing upon us a world of feeling, but a feeling subtly at one remove. It is this removal that can prove so problematic: that the feeling generated has nothing to do with our own emotional amplitude but to a constant deference to the music.
To explain a little further it might be useful to draw on some of Milan Kundera's comments in Testaments Betrayed. Here he writes that as a boy he would throw himself passionately into improvisations for which he needed nothing but "a C-minor chord and the sub-dominant F minor, played fortissimo over and over again." And thus he experienced an emotion greater than any Chopin or Beethoven had ever given him. This gave Kundera a certain feeling of ecstasy: an emotion reached its climax but at the same time a certain negation - a sense of oblivion. Now Kundera also believes that for example this ecstasy cannot be mirrored in a melody, because ecstasy is a pleasure without memory, without a history, and it would thus be impossible to keep in mind the necessary amount of musical information to have the pleasure desired for ecstasy. Do we instead settle for a lower level of intensity, but as a consequence have a less oblivious relationship to pleasure?
This is central to the problem The Piano Teacher addresses. Here we have a woman who has never found in music even the hint of pleasure Kundera experienced in improvisation, but has her desire to be true to the form led to a steady erosion of being? How can we develop a pleasure with memory, a pleasure that captures the balancing act between a formal rigour and a facile ecstasy? Now this isn't really the question Haneke sets out to answer; what matters here is much more Erika's failure to answer it because she's never really asked it. The young man with whom she falls in love - the young man, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), whose playing she finds too slick - doesn't ask it either. But he seems to understand it, seems to know that to gain pleasure from music we must be receptive to the feelings it generates within us, and must feed that pleasure back into the form. Otherwise what is the point? If those who understand music most cannot respond to it on an affective level, then does it create a futility within the art form? When Kundera suggests it's important that we have a pleasure with memory, can we also say that we need a feeling within form? Should we not seek neither ecstatic pleasure nor ascetic denial but a state that allows us to evolve our feelings? If we seek only ecstatic pleasure the music all but disappears because we're lost in the moment of ecstasy, but if we live for the music as pure form do we remove ourselves once again? In the former instance we remove our experience by pure feeling in pure form. This former response is the sort of pure feeling Kundera describes when discussing a lover who forgets at the moment of orgasm his "determination (his immediate past) and his interest (his immediate future)". But in the latter we have a reverse abdication of being: where the person gives him or herself completely over to the music, where memory is on this occasion not so much "strangled by ecstasy", in Kundera's phrase, but murdered by repression.
Could we not say, though, that these two phrases, "strangled by ecstasy" on the one hand, "murdered by repression", on the other, go some way to explaining Erika's behavioural modes? However she looks not to music for her strangled ecstasy, but instead to elaborate rituals concerning sex. Whether this takes the form of slicing her labia, and then gaining a curious pleasure urinating in a movie drive-in as she watches a couple making love, smelling used cum tissues as she watches pornography in video booths, or looking for aggressively ritualised sex with Walter, we feel she doesn't want to develop her being through sex, but to evaporate it. But is this because she's allowed her love of music to be murdered by repression? Early in the film her mother (Annie Girardot) insists that she should be careful about helping others to master Schubert; isn't it her territory? One shouldn't teach Schubert to another, but insistently protect one's turf, one's skill and dexterity, to the detriment of others. Now this is obviously partly about defending a space professionally and egotistically, but it is also about defending and protecting Schubert from anyone who isn't absolutely deferential to the music, as if Erika wants to murder Schubert by repression also. If the personal aspect comes into the music at all, it is really to destroy the person who plays it. At one stage Erika asks if Klemmer has read Adorno on Schumann. Schumann, she says, was still playing as his mind was going; "he knows he's losing his mind. It torments him, but he clings one last time. It's being aware of what it means to lose oneself before being completely abandoned." Erika admires this destruction of self, as though an ideal state would have no beings but only music - that we would be obliterated if you like by the demands of form. She's the sort of person who would admire David Helfgott's collapse during Rachmaninoff's fifth (though she might understandably despair at the sentiment of the film adaptation, Shine): she's a woman who wants feeling so subordinate to form that the very person disintegrates, the being state that regulates between form and feeling collapses. To be replaced by what Erika does not know. How could she when there is so little being, the sort of being proposed by Kundera when he talks of determination and interest.
Thus what is fascinating about Erika here in relation to certain states of abjection is that whether one seeks out pure form or pure feeling the end result is the same: a destruction of being. Music does not serve to enhance being, but helps us obliterate it, so whether Erika searches out high forms (classical music), or low forms (porn booths), the principle is the same: to escape oneself. Now in Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky writes interestingly about notion of craft versus the self, and notes the west often has an egotistical relationship with the art work absent in the east, and it is true a certain contemporary notion of aesthetics places being at the centre of art, the sort of being state which doesn't separate the artist from his art, but implicates him in it, that its ethics are also his ethics. Al Alvarez discusses this in the Savage God when he says, 'But since the discovery, or rediscovery, of the self as the arena of the arts was also concurrent with the collapse of the whole framework of values by which experience was traditionally ordered and judged - religion, politics national cultural tradition and, finally, reason itself - it follows that the new permanent condition of the arts was depression.'
Here the self doesn't subordinate itself to art, but works art out of its own despair, finding, if you like, a feeling value as opposed to a form value. We could say that to some degree this is the difference Heidegger captures in his essay 'The Origins of the Work of Art'. Here Heidegger says "the essence of art would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work. But until now art presumably has had to do with the beautiful and beauty, and not with truth." Heidegger wonders, though, focusing on Van Gogh, whether a certain truth announces itself to the detriment of the beautiful. For Erika music belongs very much to the world of beauty and not to truth, if we claim beauty is form and feeling truth. So if we go along with Heidegger's proposal that "Van Gogh's painting [of a pair of peasant shoes] is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth. This being emerges into the unconcealment of its being", thus art shouldn't conceal being but reveal it in its essence. Does Erika not want to destroy the being of art for a formal elegance that all but removes being from the creative activity? This is Erika's abjection. She is in fact perhaps the opposite of what Kundera calls a misomusist. As Kundera describes it, a person "can live in peace without reading Proust or listening to Schubert. But the misomust does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it." The misomusist Kundera believes wants art always to serve some political or social purpose, but they understand little of the texture of an art work, and feel on some level that initself it is always superfluous. But for Erika it as though being not art is superfluous. She loves art, but hates being, and thus seems capable of having a being at all only on the most abject of terms. Hence any relationship with Walter must come from the abject depths, must have an animal aspect devoid of human warmth.
In interviews, Isabelle Huppert describes her character as "a mutant...she's not a hysterical woman, to my mind, but a woman who's struggling - in a very maladroit way - to invent a new kind of woman." Huppert goes on to refer to this type as slightly male, but Erika's mutant quality resides just as readily in becoming male or female, in trying to find conventional emotional categories for feelings long since buried away, if ever found in the first place. It's like she is trying to make sense of words such as 'love', 'jealousy', 'desire' but treats the words with a combination of gaucheness and cruelty. When she feels jealousy towards a young woman with whom Walter appears to be getting along, she goes off and puts broken glass into the girl's coat pocket. When she starts having desiring feelings for Walter she insists on masturbating him in the women's toilets. Her mutancy here is in trying to fit emotions to situations, but, so out of touch with those feelings does she happen to be, that she can't make the emotion and situation fit. Could we stretch a point and say art can help us move towards this emotional/situational match, but such is Erika's emotional alienation from art, as well as her alienation from life, that she's constantly entering the world of emotions as if she were born yesterday? She's a mutant child of the emotions who can't work her feelings into her existence on any level and thus hurtles towards abject states as though her body was blind: we witness a series of emotionally clumsy actions that leave her behaviour inexplicable to herself and to others.
Now art's very purpose can of course reside partly in giving us an opportunity to understand ourselves, however tenuously. Doesn't art often give us the most complex of emotional learning tools that mean we don't have to act our feelings, but that often we can hypothesize them, that art can help us to understand the complexity of our feelings when others around us cannot do so? But we sense here that is something Erika has never done; she's never believed in art enough in relation to emotional health to construct a self out of normative gestures - normative not in any hugely moral sense, but just in terms of feelings matching actions. She's never believed in that Deleuzian notion of thinking no more of great art but instead of great health. Without people around her ever having moved her towards this health (her closest friend appears to be her difficult mother), and with Erika seeing art as a form rather than a container of feelings, then how would this learning curve be possible? Erika is a mutant because she rabidly gestures towards signs for her emotions but there is always a perverse mis-match. We see this for example in the scene where Erika has put glass in the girl's coat. Now of course nobody knows who's responsible for the action (Erika sneaks out from the concert and into the changing rooms), but as the girl cries out in pain, Erika tells Walter to go to her aid, that the girl needs him in this time of need. First of all it looks more or less as if Erika is confessing to the crime, but she does so because she wants Walter to register her irritation with him, her burgeoning feelings of jealousy. It's a moment of petulance but attached to a gesture of psychosis. If we had the gesture without the horrific preceding incident, we could just about understand Erika's emotional state. We would see that her going off in the huff was immature but nothing more. But so out of the emotional loop does Erika happen to be, that her actions constantly topple off into the psychotic.
Some might insist Erika's problem is in essence psychoanalytic. There is some truth to this, but it's maybe more useful to say she needs not only an excavatory exploration of self, but also an elaboration of hypothetical emotional possibilities, so that the excavation serves not only the mysteries of events buried in the past, but the emotional blockages that lead to extraordinary behaviour in the present. What seems especially important is to ask her to start attaching emotional possibilities to emotional signs, to art works if you like, to start her thinking not of great art but great medicine. From this point of view it isn't that Erika needs to be understood as a problem: it is very clear what her problems are. She's obviously lived for years with her suffocating mother, her father is long since dead and her life has been devoted to mastering pieces of music. What we can see is not so much the problem of a buried past, but a buried series of emotions that may have stretched back as far as childhood.
For example it is unlikely Erika has in the past had a number of relationships with men, but it would be entirely possible that she has had in the past fixations on other men, so that her over-reactions and perversity with Walter would not be based on situations with other men, but on thoughts about others. Attach this virtualisation on the one hand to the apparent absence of virtualising the emotions through art works on the other, and we're left very much with the mutant Huppert so describes. Now it is perhaps true many people are alienated from others, but what keeps this alienation from toppling over into psychosis could be the opportunity art works give us to hypothesise states of being, the way we will cry at a romantic film, for example, or feel terror at a horror outing. This type of relationship to art seems curiously beyond or outside Erika's ken.
We can see this impossible art and feeling aspect in the scene we quoted above where Erika goes off and puts the broken glass into the girl's jacket. The opera informs us of depths of feeling in relation to love with its lines like 'What is this foolish desire that is driving me into the wilderness.' But Erika seems unmoved by the music, as though the most it can do is propose to her an extreme action of her own, the sort of extreme action that generates debates about representations of violence when someone acts extremely in the wake of say watching Taxi Driver (as in John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Reagan), or Rambo films (where Michael Ryan went on a murder spree in Hungerford). What is taken from the art work or entertainment is the self-justificatory aspect to the detriment of the work's wider possibilities as a self-contained release mechanism. What we have is aggrieved-ness attached to a sliver of representational meaning in the work, and a disturbing event in life is the consequence.
Now of course there is a world of a difference between Erika and a Hinckley or Michael Ryan but that difference is less one of psychotic degrees than a formal aspect to Erika that results in alienating herself from the world through art as much as through society. She is almost aesthetically psychotic, as though her respect for form leaves her with almost no comprehension of herself. She is someone who loves form more than life and falls apart not least because feeling invades her body but without any form available with which to contain it. When many people fall in love they do so at least with an accumulation of formal possibilities within which to contain the feeling, no matter how intense they claim their feelings happen to be. There are certain devices available to us to express these feelings: whether that takes the immediate form of making love to convey our passion, or the more long-lasting, elaborate and public notion of the marriage. But Erika wrestles with this feeling and initially finds her form through a lengthy letter detailing exactly what she would like Walter to do to her. Walter, seemingly well-capable of attaching the necessary feeling to the form finds Erika's behaviour both insane and sadistic. And his diagnosis is correct: Erika is in this area both sado-masochistic and deeply de-centred.
All she can really hope to do it seems is de-centre Walter also. Superficially we can say Erika wants to destroy Walter's ego, but we could maybe more usefully suggest she wants to destroy his form: that what she resents most in Walter is his ability to possess a form for feeling that allows for a healthy calibration: an emotional calibration that allows him to feel physically attractive, to be a burgeoning engineer, a fine musician and a skilful sportsman. When near the end of the film, as Walter goes to her flat one night and starts to beat her up, he frustratingly, more or less himself now psychotic, follows Erika's demands in her letter: Hit me around the face and hit me hard. "At your service, dear lady" he says, hitting her in the face and on the body. As he paces around the apartment, there is no sense that Walter is in control; he's allowed himself to become formless and confused, frustrated and capable of anything. "You can't get a guy going and then take refuge on the ice'" he insists, before coming back through from the kitchen and in a flurry of frustration slaps her again and then hits a door. As they sit in the hall, Walter reckons Erika "should try and be a bit co-operative, fuck it." "I'd be happy to learn to play. But not if we only ever play by your rules." "You can't delve around inside people, then reject them." Walter has lost his equilibrium, or if you like his calibration, because feeling and form have lost their co-ordinates.
Now this isn't to insist on a blanket rejection of all sado-masochistic activity, and that we reject it because it lacks a feeling-to-form capacity. As Deleuze (in Masochism) and others have written, basically masochism is neither material nor moral, but that it is in essence formal, that frequently masochism has a very formal element in which to contain, sustain and enhance feeling. But for Erika her formal drive doesn't contain feeling, it replaces it, and it is this replacement, leading to a strange displacement in Walter, that creates the chaos of the scene just described. There is consequently nothing formal in this scene where Walter slaps Erika around whilst her mother screams at him to leave her alone, banging away on the door of the room in which he has locked her. It is much more the disintegration of form because of an immaturity on the part of both characters. We use the term immaturity provocatively here, because this isn't the immaturity of conventional behaviour, the immaturity we often talk about when we believe someone hasn't grown up - though in Walter and certainly Erika's case it could be a term conventionally applied. No, this is much more an immaturity in relation to the sado-masochism in which they're caught. They are gross amateurs in the world of sado-masochism, evident when Walter wonders as he beats Erika up whether this is how he's supposed to do it. He's investing the 'game' with a residual feeling that vastly expands the boundaries of the rite, as the whole situation disintegrates into a standard power game between the strong (Walter) and the weak (Erika). Maybe if Walter were older he might have been able to create a set of rules that would fit within his own value system, and be consistent with Erika's need for a sado-masochistic relationship. But his initial reaction is so insistently resistant, and his final acceptance so completely beyond control, that even within the realm of the game both parties fail dismally. Erika after all seems to have almost no emotional experience of any sort, let alone the type required to work through her own pleasure principle that is several removes from the norm.
In a number of ways The Piano Teacher is part of a wave of French films (no matter the film is set in Vienna, the language the characters speak is French, and both leads Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel French also) that focuses on older women and younger men. These include Parfait amour, Nettoyage a sec, The School of Flesh and Le vent de la nuit. But The Piano Teacher wants to work with a woman especially emotionally immature, and a young man whose behaviour is conventional but whose desires perhaps are not, and who finds what he is capable of when falling for an older, yet emotionally deeply inexperienced woman. What would usually unite such characters - the very thing that creates the bond in the first place - is art. But we should remember that in their conversation, sure music is discussed, but Erika mentions it within the context of madness and pain, and it is to the latter that she's drawn when it comes to expressing emotion.
From this point of view The Piano Teacher works like an inversion of a film like Jacques Rivette's Va Savoir.In Rivette's film, art proves vital to health, as the central character has a near affair with a young woman before both realize that it is really more about their desire to find a Goldoni text than their attraction towards each other. Certainly they could still have embarked on an affair were there not complications attached (most notably the central character's problematic but still very loving relationship with his partner), but what Rivette wants to register most strongly is the healthy capacity in art; its health-giving properties. But that is only half the story. The other concerns the central character's renunciative urge; his need not to embark on an affair with the younger woman, because he knows enough about himself, the world and art, to see that an affair would add nothing to his universe. In all sorts of ways this is reversed in The Piano Teacher. Clearly Walter has only enough maturity to embark on a conventional affair; and definitely not enough to try to make sense of a woman who in her very maturity of years, and immaturity of emotional experience, proves far too complex for the formerly assured but quickly disintegrating Walter. We may even wonder whether that is part of the final sado-masochism of Erika. She may not know herself, but by destroying Walter she harbours the assumption that nobody can know themselves, and any attempt through the world of art is a futile experience. She creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of meaninglessness as she drives a young man to distraction. Why do we not accept our emotional limitations, she might say, and live not with art (and for its health-inducing properties), but beneath art, carapaced by its formal beauty, a beauty we as individuals are incapable of coming close to matching.
Yet at the very end of the film Erika does not perform her show, she does not get up on stage and play the piano in front of hundreds despite all the well-wishers and hurried bodies passing her as she waits in the hall preparing to go on stage. Instead she takes out of her bag the kitchen knife she's taken from the kitchen drawer at home, and stabs herself in the shoulder with it. She then promptly leaves the music hall and walks along the street as the end credits come up. For all her belief in form, does she not accept that once the self hits a degree of formlessness there is no form within the very self capable of performing a work of art? Haneke here offers Erika up as the ultimate example of formal precision consequently disintegrating the very emotional, psychological and physical form of the person required to play the work. Thus we can see the necessity of evolving being even from the point of view of the significance of art as an object out-with ourselves, because we need ourselves to perform that art. If on the one hand we have the young Kundera playing bits of music in an ecstatic attempt to lose himself within himself, and on the other we have Erika so completely devoid of self, so completely has she given herself over to form, how we might ask can we create a balancing act that gives us the necessary equilibrium to both be and perform?
Let us contrast, in conclusion, two characters within the film. There is the pre-Erika Walter, and the, if you like, post-Erika, student, Anna, whose hand gets destroyed by Erika's jealous action. The pre-Erika Walter insists at a piano recital at his aunt's place where Erika also performs, that he initially wanted to play Schoenberg but decides instead to play his favourite piece by Schubert. This change of mind came about, he insists, because of a discussion he's just had moments before on Schumann and Schubert - with Erika in fact. What he suggests here is an improvisatory freedom on several levels. First of all on the social and intellectual level in that he's capable of first of all entering a discussion and engaging with it. His conversation with Erika is contrasted with her mother's conversation with his uncle whom she describes as a bore. We're clear that whatever else the conversation between Erika and Walter has been it's not been boring. Secondly he manages skilfully to incorporate the conversation into a decision to play a different piece of music, and thirdly to play that other piece of music as well as he would have played the intended piece. We sense here that Walter doesn't just have a good musical ear, but a kind of ontological ear, an ability to read situations as readily as music, and maximise his enjoyment of life in the process. This is the opposite in Anna's case where in one scene her mother all but accosts Erika in the street and asks why Anna might not be playing at the jubilee concert. The mother insists music is Anna's life, and we then see Anna crying, with her mother telling her, "without total commitment you won't get anywhere." Later, on the day of a rehearsal, Anna turns up late and after Erika tells her to stop blubbing, Anna explains that she's had nervous diarrhoea.
So if for Anna music is Anna's life, and so much so that her own body can't control itself in relation to the importance of music, we could say for Walter music is in his life, but the instrument he wants to master is his own existence as he combines engineering, music and sport with the air of affirmative being that will allow him to move from one area of life to another in complete engagement with the given activity. He will not possess a certain auto-ressentiment, a sense of not having worked hard enough, of worrying about not focusing his mind. This is central to Erika's intolerance when she suggests he's not suitable for the Vienna academy. Isn't there always a price to pay for talent, the very price Erika suggests Schumann paid? This is again art as ressentiment as opposed to affirmation, and so central to Erika's feelings for Walter isn't just sexual attraction, but the generation of sexual frustration, evident in the scene where she insistently masturbates Walter in the female toilets. She wants him to arrive at a degree of frustration that she feels is almost an ontological given of life, and can't quite understand why he doesn't possess it. If Anna possesses it in spades, and consequently barely interests Erika at all; Erika's endlessly fascinated by this young man who seems not only capable of improvising on the spot when it comes to playing music, but also with his very own life. How to destroy this improvisatory zeal? She does so with cold control and the creation of sexual frustration.
But of course by the end of the film Erika herself so loses control that she can no longer do the one thing in life that we could call her functional aspect: her ability to play music. In just about every other aspect of her life she's proven dysfunctional, but whatever self she possesses has been able to perform, has been able to subjugate itself to the importance of music. Here, at the very end of the film she proves inadequate to that particular task. For all her admiration for Schumann's breakdown as he was lost in the music as his mental health goes; ironically in Erika's case it is the opposite. Her nervous collapse precedes the music, and leaves her unable even to make it on to the stage.
© Tony McKibbin