‘The Piano Teacher’: the daring genius of Isabelle Huppert

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The artistic connection between Austrian director Michael Haneke and the French actress Isabelle Huppert has been a perfect creative marriage.

The icy, unsparing filmmaker and one of the world’s most daring screen performers have pushed each other to making a series of demanding, sometimes unpleasant movies that have nevertheless brought them both widespread and deserved acclaim.

Huppert has a strong supporting role in the new Haneke film, “Amour,” about the decline and end of a long and happy marriage, after the wife suffers a series of strokes. French screen icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva play the couple and Huppert is their angry, frightened daughter, who won’t accept the realities of aging.

“Amour” is one of the finest films of 2012, but the peak achievement of Haneke and Huppert remains the 2001 film “The Piano Teacher” which won the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and earned Huppert her second best actress prize at Cannes.

Huppert gives one of the greatest performances of the past two decades in the movie and it was a disgrace for the Oscar voters not to cite it (indeed, Huppert has never been nominated for an Academy Award).

So, I was flattered to be asked to host a screening of the movie tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford, under the auspices of the Alliance Francaise of Greenwich.

There’s no getting around the fact that “The Piano Teacher” is demanding, and so frank about the title character’s twisted sexuality that it always prompts walkouts. The theater’s ace programmer/manager Adam Birnbaum was smart to attach a special warning to the event: “This film is unrated. It contains material that may be deemed objectionable or offensive to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Huppert plays a woman who seems completely successful — on the surface. She’s a brilliant teacher — tough but highly skilled — who works from the highest standards in a very fine music school.

The 40ish teacher is attractive (albeit reserved) and appears to be completely in charge of her life until Haneke begins peeling away the layers of the woman’s life, and we see that the teacher still lives under the thumb of her demanding musician mother (an amazing performance by Annie Girardot), and has a secret, perverse sex life that would scandalize her pupils and other teachers.

The woman’s underground life becomes public after she gets into a strange relationship with one of her students (played by Benoit Magimel, who won the best actor prize at Cannes for his very strong performance). The student is obsessed with his teacher and wants to start a relationship, but when that happens, he has no idea of what he is getting into.

You could say that all of Haneke’s films have elements of horror in them. “The Piano Teacher” is about the terrifying consequences of sexual repression. The teacher’s self-hatred turns violent, and the movie doesn’t avoid exploring any of the implications in its protagonist’s deeply disturbed view of male-female relationships. (It also shows, in a very matter of fact manner, her relationship with hard core pornography.)

Few actresses have ever gone as far as Huppert does in this performance — certainly there is no equivalent in any Hollywood film of the past 20 years — and it cemented her position at the top of her field.

For complete details on tonight’s screening in Stamford go to www.avontheatre.org

Joe Meyers

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