La Pianiste  (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 Bob Strauss of the LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS offered the best one-sentence summary of the film:

 "Anyone who's ever suffered under a martinet music instructor has no doubt fantasized about what an unhappy, repressed and twisted personal life their tormentor deserved. These people are really going to love The Piano Teacher."

But I think this quote from an IMDb reader is the sentence which tells you whether you will weigh in on the side of those who found it to be obsessive self-indulgent crap, or the side of those who found it to be a cinema masterpiece:

"La Pianiste is a film that cannot be appreciated without understanding cinema as an art form."

When I read that, I knew I was in trouble. Almost every time I see that a film requires an understanding of cinema as an art form, I know that I'm in for an arduous, pretentious, joyless experience. I have spent many long and weary hours watching such fare as "Mother and Son", "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad", and have been forced to conclude that I have no understanding of cinema as an art form. I understand cinema as entertainment. I understand it as illumination. I understand it as instruction. And I understand it as a powerful tool to manipulate emotions for various purposes. But I have as much chance of understanding cinema as an art form as I would have of understanding a Farsi translation of Finnegan's Wake. I would have a better chance of understanding Chaos Theory or even Mime, for heaven's sake.

There is only one critical comment that can offer me greater assurance of an unpleasant experience - if the critic says the film is a tone-poem. I thank God that back in school I only had to study romantic and neo-classical and avant-garde poetry. If I had to take tone-poetry to graduate, I'd still be the world's oldest senior.

The French cultural institution known as Isabelle Huppert stars in the film, playing the aloof, spinsterly, condescending pillar of musical competence whose tight frown and severe exterior seem to indicate a virtual lack of happiness in her life. That turns out to be a fair indication, but a gifted young student decides to enter her life anyway, ignoring all the external signals because he senses that he has found the ultimate male fantasy - the prim exterior which masks a wild nature. He's right in some ways, but the wildness he finds is more than he bargains for. She's not repressing lust, but insanity (we find that her father is in an asylum for the same condition), and to come near her is to invite oneself into the deepest recesses of the libido.

Is there a joyless perversion to be imagined? Huppert is into it. She mutilates her genitals with a razor while she watches in the mirror. She makes sexual advances at her mother, not because she is interested, but as part of some kind of mother-daughter power struggle, presumably to get revenge for something or another in the past. She goes to adult bookstores and stares disapprovingly at the young men who seek porn and anonymity. She watches hard-core porn. She walks around a drive-in, peeping in on couples making love.

The poor lad who enters this world thinks he is ready for it, but he is not. He seems supremely self-confident, and is a dead ringer for a young Wayne Gretzky, sexually and mentally mature beyond his years, but his sexuality is of a more typical strain. He wants a woman with joyful passion, not self-punishing lunacy. He wants to engage in sex for pleasure and emotional contact, not for pain or retribution or humiliation or empty longing.

When he attempts to make love to Huppert, she stops him, saying that she will send him a letter explaining exactly what he is to do. That particular missive would bring a blush to DeSade. He is to degrade her in sexual ways and to beat her unmercifully. She is a masochist, but he has no interest in being her designated sadist. Not only does he find her requests anhedonic and outré, but they don't even seem calculated to satisfy her arcane sexual tastes, a motivation which he might be able to live with. Instead, they seem calculated solely to humiliate Huppert's mother in some way. (The mother figures into the plan detailed in the letter.)

Huppert then engages the lad with a circular pattern of behavior in which she extends an invitation, warmth or flexibility, then goes frigid when he gets hooked in, possibly intending to provoke him into violence toward her. Then when he gets disgusted, she turns soft again until he is hooked once more. Repeat if necessary.

Hey, I'm glad it was this kid and not me.


  • one very brief nipple from Isabelle Huppert, plus an unrevealing side view of her crotch, and a shot of her crotch in semi-transparent lace panties.

  • when Huppert watches the porn movies, we actually see what she is watching (explicit and graphic hard-core sexual activity - erections, oral sex, etc)

I suppose this is one of the artiest and most refined films ever made about those elements of sex which are unrelated to love or pleasure. The ambiance consists of classical musicians and their work, and the events transpire in a rarefied world of highly educated and talented people. Isabelle Huppert is quite inventive in the role, filled with twitches and tics and darting eyes, all of which brought the strangeness of the character to the forefront. She chose to play the character so that the casual observer thinks there is something wrong with her even before seeing her secrets revealed. The director clearly agreed with this portrayal, because he lingered on her face as she was twitching. My vote appears to represent a lone voice, because Huppert won many acting accolades for this film, but I'm not convinced that her portrayal was consistent with the script. Most of her acquaintances seemed to think she was a stable, prissy schoolmarm, and never seemed to take any notice of her offbeat mannerisms. Yet if I had met this woman casually, for example, I would have seen so many negative signals that I'd have stayed away from her, although her young suitor did not pick up on this. I mean this girl was creepy enough to make Chris Walken give her a wide berth. This seemed like a credibility issue to me as I watched the film. I would have been more absorbed by the story if she had seemed more like a normal person on the surface, especially since the other characters seemed to treat her as if that were true.

Many critics found this to be an outstanding film, and perhaps it is. Unfortunately, the film comes from the turtle-neck school of literature and film, which believes roughly the following:

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen letterboxed 1.85:1.

  • interview with Isabelle Huppert

A pointless character study is unacceptable if it involves happiness, even if it is beautifully acted and directed.


If it portrays life as one unremitting scream of pain, it's genius, I tell you, sheer genius.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, 4/5

  • UK consensus: an average of two and a half stars, but polarized. Daily Mail 4/10, The Guardian 10/10, The Times 3/10, The Express 8/10, The Mirror 8/10, BBC 3/5

  • The film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, as well as several acting awards at Cannes and the Cesars. The British academy nominated it as "best foreign-language film", but it lost to Amores Perros.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it grossed $1 million in the USA and Spain, and about $6 million in France. It bombed completely in a two week appearance in the UK.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C. I guess the genre is arty sex films, or something equally French. It is about sexual matters, but it is not about pleasure or love. If you have a picture of foreign-language films as aloof, pretentious, obsessive, humorless, and completely entertainment-free, this movie will not change your mind. 

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