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This is a very difficult film to watch. It explores the complete decay of an individual, a piano teacher at the elite Vienna conservatory of music, dropping from a cold, regimented, bitter, repressed stoic life, dominated by a dragon mother, to a completely abherant sexual obsession and finally to total destruction. I have seen a lot of tough movies recently, but there was always a redeeming quality in the events or the characters that made the painful experience of going through the movie worth it in the end. I am thinking about "Scarlet Diva" in particular that i saw recently.
Even though i really loved it, it's not a movie i look forward to seeing again soon though because it was so draining and did not offer a single drop of hope that could transform a dark emotionally draining experience into a bitter-sweet moment. One thing, i did see the R-Rated version of the movie (it's all they had at my local video store), and even that was depressing as hell. I shall see the unrated version some day, but not anytime soon.
The jewel of the movie is undoubtly Isabelle Huppert. She carries the entire movie on her shoulders. She is mesmerizing and projects the emotions of her character out of the screen directly into your brain. At one time, she manages to convey so much of her character in a simple, controlled, milli-second twitch of the upper lip. It's close to a telepathic experience. It's amazing. She is simply amazing in this movie and probably the most impressive performance i have seen in a long time. It is an absolutely dark and scary character. Annie Girardot, in the role of the dragon mother provides another amazing performance here, equally scary.
Other that that, the technique in this movie has to match the level of the performance. The camera work is outstanding and i am sure many takes last longer than expected just to capture more of those amazing moments. The movie is a succession of long takes that explore in details the emotions in the scene. Many times, i'd think the film would cut to the next scene, but manages to grab my attention just for a few extra seconds to languish on a look, a hand, a shadow, a breath. It's simply fantastic. Also note how Huppert's character is always filmed with something between her and the camera, except in the darkest moments where the camera focused on her eyes. This creates a subliminal distance from the character which i think is for the better.
On the bad side though, too many times, the director seems to only rely on the performance of Isabelle Huppert. I like more exhuberant direction styles. I find Haneke lacking sometimes and this is the only reason why i did not give him full mark for the direction. Isabelle Huppert carries the movie on her shoulders and compensates brilliantly for an otherwise lengthy exposition of the story and the drama that unfolds. The writing is also not detailed enough. Maybe it's because the performance is so powerful that everything else had to take second seat. But still, there are opportunities about exploring other aspects of the relationships and the characters that have been missed. Many people have loved this film as a portrait, and i agree with this point of view. I just feel that the character exists in a world that surrounds her, and reducing it all to her misses things.
Finally, a review of this film would not be complete without mentioning the music. The music is the last character in this movie. The classical music performed throughout the movie is simply fantastic. It's a collection of great classical piano classics, from Bach to Schonberg, Schuman to Schubert. All those pieces create a great mood throughout the movie. I only regret that the music was not used even more to underscore the later part of the movie. It's a matter of personal taste because music is very much a mood creator for me. But i do understand the director's intention and reasoning behing it, and the result is very effective in dragging you down with the character. Huppert's character loses all her humanity as she is beginning her final descent, and music, which is so much part of her, part of the little humanity that she has left, is deserting her. By having the movie so heavy with the music in the first 90 minutes or so, and have it suddenly stop in the last 30 minutes, right before the rape scene, does create an effective chilling effect.
This is an amazing movie with a very well executed direction overall, and 2 simply extraodrinary performances from Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot. In a funny way, the performances are so incredible that i think the movie overall is suffering from them. Instead of counterbalancing those performances with other elements, the director focuses all his attention on them. Haneke does this in an extremely skillful way, but it renders the film overall one-sided. The only counterbalancing element i found was the music, superbly used here.
- Laurent Hasson