10 NOVEMBER 2001, Page 90

The Piano Teacher (18, selected cinemas)

Tune in, turn off

Mark Steyn

She was only the piano teacher, but she knew how to tickle an upright. Any young lad who's ever been put through his scales by an unforgiving spinster of a certain age has entertained idle thoughts about the secret life of piano teachers, about what happens after the lid comes down on the Bechstein for the day. In Michael Heneke's film, the repressed martinet of a teacher insists that her youthful pupil participate in her sexual fantasies. If that sounds like Confessions of a Piano Teacher, no such luck, alas. Mr Heneke is a Teutonic director of French films and La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) is played strictly for non-laughs.

The piano teacher elle-meme is Erika Kohut, a fortesomething pianist who's made it relatively big at the conservatory in Vienna but goes home each night to sleep in a twin bed side by side with her mother. The father is banged up in an asylum, and is lucky to be out of it. Erika is played by Isabelle Ruppert, one of those actresses who usually gets described in the broadsheets as 'fiercely intelligent'. Fierce intelligence I can take or leave, but I've always liked Mlle Huppert for her freckles, especially in the nude scenes. Unfortunately, they usually take for ever to get to, and, at least as far back as The Lacemaker, the stuff in between — dialogue, plot, lighting, furniture — tends to the gloomy. Indeed, La Pianiste is almost comically gloomy, like a parody of an Isabelle Huppert film. Its conceit is that a woman who has mastered something that should be lifeaffirming and transcendent and deepening of her humanity — music — is instead shuttered down, desensitised and depraved.

To this end, there's plenty of S&M — Schubert & Masturbation — like the scene in which some sonata is overlaid with the whimpers and moans of a hardcore porno movie as Erika sniffs the discarded Kleenex of a previous customer. A little of this goes a long way, managing as it does to put you off both Schubert and porn. There's an emblematic moment when Professor Kohut goes into a sex shop and has to wait to get into one of the masturbatory 'private cabins'. The male patrons are trying to browse the impressively specialised magazine racks, and are visibly irked by this austere woman in a beige mac hanging around and casting a pall over the silicone and depilated pudenda. These 30 seconds brilliantly sum up the general effect of the film. If you think the chirpy Amelie is an affront to Gallic cinema, then La Pianiste will restore your faith.

As the film begins, we see Professor Kohut returning home to the apartment. Mum keeps a tight rein on her middle-aged daughter: if Erika takes too long getting home from her last lesson of the day, the old lady rips up selected outfits. Maternal domination, it seems, has trapped Erika in an isolated, barren existence filled with self-loathing. She is outwardly controlled, except for a tendency to humiliate and degrade her teenage pupils, most of whom wind up playing in the key of A flat minor. But then we see her strolling past the video arcade to the sex shop. This in itself would be unusual — single women are rare in sex shops — but a plausible expression of her loneliness and self-loathing. But it doesn't stop there. After auditions for the highlysought places in her class, Erika goes home, into the bathroom, and unwinds with a little light ritual genital mutilation. Dinner's ready!' shouts mum, so she tucks the razor blade away and heads for the table.

Okay, she enjoys masturbating in porn shops and slicing up her naughty bits. But it doesn't stop there! After another hard day at the conservatory, she slips out to a drivein movie theatre, where she likes to watch not the film but the young people having sex in cars. She squats down, grips the handle of the vibrating Fiat, and gets so turned on that she has to urinate, until the guy in the back seat going at it suddenly hears the sound of a tinkling piano teacher outside the right-hand passenger door.

Now it's true that everyone is unknowable. That bank manager sitting opposite you on the Tube might be heading home to work on his stamp collection or off to spend the evening hanging upside down in a bondage dungeon. But, despite the film's Nabokovian echoes, the sheer piling-on of perversions winds up undermining Mlle Huppert. Given that her controlled and at times positively catatonic performance could be hiding anything and nothing, the mountain of sado-masochistic specialities she's covering up comes to seem entirely arbitrary, for all the attention to detail of her muscle-clenching and arm-flailing. Inevitably, when a young student (Benoit Magimel) falls for her, she's incapable of responding to his passion in any loving way, and this sets the scene for the drama's 'disturbing' concluding act.

The rumour in Cannes, where La Pianiste won big, is that the jurors were flipping their fingers at JOrg Haider's Freedom Party by giving the awards to a film based on a book by one of Haider's bêtes-noires. Elfriede Jelinek. That makes as much sense as any other theory. But the acting awards are utterly perplexing: Benoit Magimel's transformation in the final act smells fake. and Isabelle Huppert's piano teacher is the nearest to a one-note performance she's given in 20 years.