Madman Cinema/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 125 mins .
R . PAL
The lesson begins...
When it comes to depicting the intricacies and aberrations of sexuality, European cinema is far ahead of the rest of the world. And we’re not talking about the Saturday night special on SBS here, either; sure, a great many films from France and elsewhere on the continent have depicted sexuality in a far less inhibited manner than anything coming out of the U.S., but as anyone who’s been involved in a turbulent relationship knows all too well, it’s the psychological elements of human desire that are the most powerful - and the most difficult to depict on film. German director Michael Haneke knows this all too well; renowned for movies that challenge the audience’s ideas of normality, his filming of Elfriede Jelinek’s confronting novel La Pianiste (retitled The Piano Teacher for English-speaking countries, handily avoiding confusion with Roman Polanski’s Le Pianiste of the following year) is a remarkable piece of cinema - albeit one which many will find a discomfiting experience to watch.
Set in Vienna, The Piano Teacher is the story of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert, who will be best remembered by those allergic to subtitles for her roles in Heaven’s Gate, The Bedroom Window and Hal Hartley’s Amateur). Erika teaches piano at the Vienna Music Conservatory, and is undeniably excellent at her job. But she’s cold and remote, despite the emotional fire of the music she plays and teaches. Her life outside the conservatory provides some clue as to why; living and sleeping in the same bed with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot), Erika’s only outward expression of the feelings within comes via self-mutilation, and the occasional visit to a local porn shop to dispassionately watch peep-show videos (the Australian censorship advice of “actual sex”, by the way, refers to the video depicted here). When she meets a confident new student Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), though, Erika finds herself attracted to him - not that she’s prepared to do anything about it right away. But when Walter begins pursuing her, Erika thinks she might have found the person she’s been waiting for - the person with whom she can act out her self-destructive, sadomasochistic fantasies. “I have no feelings,” Erika tells Walter. “Get that into your head. If I ever do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.”
The face of jealousy
Haneke has shot The Piano Teacher in a minimalist, almost detached way, but don’t think for one second that this means you’re in for a slow experience. Indeed, this is one of the most compelling dramas we’ve seen in recent months - you literally cannot take your eyes off the screen, and as Erika’s hidden inner world starts to unfold and then has a dramatic impact on those around her, the sense of tension is palpable. Huppert is superb; though she specialises in characters like this to some extent, this is an adventurous and challenging leap to another level; nobody else could have conveyed so much about Erika’s inner world than Huppert. Every single facial expression speaks volumes without a word being uttered; it’s a remarkable performance. The supporting cast are all solid, but this is undeniably Huppert’s film.
The subject matter - and Haneke’s unflinching approach to it - means that this is not a film for the easily offended. But then, that’s precisely the idea. “He’s always looking for the most unsettling element,” Huppert says of Haneke in her audio commentary. “Watching the film becomes a real physical adventure, an authentic physical experience, where we’re physically and profoundly unsettled by what he shows us.”
This 16:9 enhanced transfer is supplied at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and despite some minor technical flaws it’s generally a very good transfer indeed. The main problem here is film grain, which is visible in many scenes (particularly darker ones). Grain in itself isn’t objectionable - after all, it’s part of the character of film - but the encoding bitrate here is decidedly on the low side, the entire 125 minute film crammed into a single layer of the dual-layered DVD (the second layer is reserved for the extra features). Madman’s encoding team have done a superb job, and there aren’t any major compression problems visible. But the grain in some scenes tends to be exacerbated by the limited bitrate, and fine detail occasionally suffers as a result. Still, in quality terms this is light-years ahead of what was seen in the cinema here.
Subtitles for the French dialogue are supplied in a compact, clear yellow font (a la SBS) and can be turned off if you happen to speak French.
While there’s a fairly large amount of incidental music in The Piano Teacher, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t really take advantage of the chance to surround the viewer with sound - in fact, the entire soundtrack is decidedly front-focussed, which suits the material just fine. A few piano passages exhibit quite noticeable distortion, which presumably was on the source recordings used; overall, though, it’s a very serviceable soundtrack, with clear dialogue and a nice sense of realism in the few outdoor scenes where the surrounds properly spring to life. While an LFE channel is encoded, it doesn’t appear to be used - and it’s not missed in a film of this type. Some may notice problems with audio synch on some characters; certainly the looping of certain characters’ voices is extremely loose, but this isn’t a disc problem - the film was obviously made that way.
Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut
Allocated their own entire disc layer, the extra features here are quite extensive, and extremely informative if you want to learn more about the film and the people that helped create it. The extras appear to be the same as those supplied on the UK version of the disc, commendably. As always with Madman DVDs, the disc is encoded with DVD Text and a jacket picture; we’re also very pleased to note that the authoring team have decided to allow direct access to the disc menu when the disc has been stopped; up until now, hitting the menu button on their discs from the “stop” mode has done precisely nothing, forcing you to sit through copyright and company ID screens before you can get to the menu.
Isabelle Huppert Commentary: This is not an alternate audio track for the main feature, but rather a 48-minute package of selected scenes from the film, with Huppert and an unnamed male offering insightful comments. This is genuinely fascinating stuff if you’ve found yourself absorbed by the film, and there’s a lot of information here. Huppert speaks in French, and a translation is provided via removable subtitles. This one’s 16:9 enhanced, and is divided into chapters for easy scene access.
Michael Haneke Interview: No mere quickie EPK efforts on this disc; rather, here we have an engrossing 25-minute in-depth interview with director Haneke. 4:3, with removable English-language subtitles and chapter stops.
Elfriede Jelinek Interview: A ten-minute set of interview excerpts with the author of the original book, a very nice inclusion that gives you some background about the inspirations behind this very dark story. In 4:3, with removable English subtitles which sit on top of a black bar that’s probably covering up French subtitles (Jelinek speaks in German) and chapter stops.
Behind the Scenes - The Post Synchronisation Process: 18 minutes of camcorder footage that gives you a glimpse of the amount of time and effort that goes into audio post-synch (or “looping” as the Americans like to call it). It’s fascinating as long as you’re interested in how the process works; others may find it a little tedious. In 4:3, with removable English subtitles and two chapter stops.
Theatrical Trailers: The English and French trailers for the film, both in fairly dreadful condition but useful as an insight into how such a challenging film was marketed. The French trailer is in better shape and is in 16:9, while the English one is 4:3 and offers a glimpse of how the theatrical subtitles looked (i.e. too large and distracting!) Note that there are no subtitles on the French trailer.
Madman Propaganda: Trailers for Satin Rouge, Closet, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Russian Ark and Swing.
A massively rewarding film experience for those who watch with an open mind, The Piano Teacher undeniably deserved its acclaim at Cannes in 2001 (where it won the Grand Jury Prize as well as 'Best Actress' and 'Best Actor' awards). Madman Cinema has given Australian customers an excellent transfer along with all the extras that belong with it; fans of the film will be well pleased.