Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hilarity and hooey

Matos has a wonderful post about his experience watching The Piano Teacher. When I saw it in 2002 it spooked me in ways that movies rarely do, and for months afterwards I wondered whether Michael Haneke's immersion in masochism obscured me from judging its merits. It reminded me of Pauline Kael's caveats about Hitchcock's Psycho: too well-made to dismiss entirely, yet the masterly immersion in emotional and physical violence revealed the director's true sympathies. The crucial difference is that Hitchcock made pulp, while Haneke, at worst, made tony pulp; his aesthetic distance is so pronounced that the only people you'd imagine getting off on his fantasies would be better-than-average SNL writers with a talent for spoofing the taciturn verities of a certain kind of European art cinema (the empty parlor room theatrics of Haneke's subsequent Cache is closer to what Haneke's critics have in mind than The Piano Teacher).

At any rate, what I remember most from The Piano Teacher is not the sex between Isabelle Huppert and the doe-eyed hottie who has no idea what he's awakened, but the delineation of a trope as old as The Wind and maybe The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde's, not Albert Lewin's): how aesthetic detachment creates a yearning for violence, self-inflicted or otherwise. For the record, I think the idea is bollocks, but it exerts a powerful fascination on artists; maybe it's wish-fulfillment, a compensation for the drudgery of creation. Haneke's enough of a ten-cent Freudian (and Hitchcockian) to blame Huppert's freakiness on her maman, with whom she actually shares a bed in case we miss the point. But Annie Girardot is so intensely needy that she goes beyond repulsive caricature into archetype; a scene late in the picture between them walks so dangerously close to the line of parody that in the wrong mood I might laugh it off too (how easy to imagine Cloris Leachman and Carol Burnett in their places). That's the...well, not pleasure, but satisfaction that this kind of French Grand Guignol provides: we're forced to constantly examine our reactions, forced to analyze how quickly we're inclined to lapse into irony when emotional nakedness -- even stylized, didactic nakedness like Haneke's -- troubles us. As I've said already, seeing Haneke's other films tempts me to dismiss TPT with all kinds of glibness (just thinking about Cache reminds me of an imaginary graduate thesis on colonialism). Which is why I can't ever rewatch it -- my sensibilities have been too influenced by David Lynch as it is.

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