Command Performance

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Command Performance: An Interview with Isabelle Huppert of The Piano Teacher

n American films, even the most earnest psychodrama has to pause for an allegedly “arousing” sex scene, wherein James Spader and whoever go at it in a loft, or on a boat, or in a boat parked inside a loft. Thankfully, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher is

a) French, and;

b) a film with the courage to explore dark sexuality without the cheap cinematic veneer of “eroticism.”

Isabelle Huppert (Loulou, Madame Bovary) stars as Erika Kohut, a restrained and imperious pianiste who lives with her mother and is secretly obsessed with porn, voyeurism and self-mutilation. (When not visiting porn-theatre booths and touching abused Kleenexes to her face, she’s spying on a young couple screwing at a drive-in theatre and spontaneously urinating in pleasure.) When Erika is romantically pursued by a student (Benoit Magimel), she writes him a letter, calmly instructing him to tie her up and beat the shit out of her. To say that Huppert is fearless in the role is to say the guy on Inside the Actor’s Studio can get a little ass-kissy; for her performance, Huppert won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. (The film won the Grand Prix and an acting prize for Magimel; it’s only the second film to win three.) In person, Huppert is warm, candid and, despite a slight language barrier, fiercely lucid.
Michael Martin

Did you find the material intimidating?
No. Challenging at times, but not intimidating. The script was good enough, and Haneke is a great enough director for me to think the film was going to be as rewarding as it was demanding.

You’ve played several characters who have dark sexual needs, but Erika is the most extreme. What attracted you to her?
I don’t know that anything “attracted” me. I just felt a certain . . . recognition of her. And I appreciated that this was a movie about control and the loss of control.

Did you see Erika as crippled or empowered by her sexual fetishes?
I think the main issue raised in this film is the difference between love and seduction. Erika wants to be loved, wants to be seduced. But the way she wants to be loved is this high, unreachable ideal. She has a history of being hurt, and that’s why she sets the rules of the game. When she writes the letter, she doesn’t do it as a power game — it’s more that she doesn’t want to be hurt.

She’s in control of being out of control.
Oui, oui. That’s what it is exactly. But I wasn’t very interested in trying to analyze the way she is in the film. Whether she’s in the porno shop or whether she goes to the drive-in, it’s almost like she’s a little girl. But instead of going to Disneyland, she goes to the porno shop. [Laughs] The troubling thing is she’s a woman, and usually a man does that.

Did you see Erika as a singular character or a metaphor for female oppression?
Well, I don’t think she’s a metaphor for the oppressed woman. I think she’s a metaphor for how a woman would like to reconcile her passivity and her will and her desires to be more active and less submitted. To me, Erika tries to be a little bit of a woman and a little bit of a man, but without the usual caricature patterns of cinema — you know, the executive woman who very obviously behaves like a man. It’s much more subdued in her case, and much more powerful. What Erika wants to do, in a way, is invent a new person.

In reviews of your performance, “risky” and “brave” are two descriptions that keep recurring. Are they accurate?
Of course, when you do a thing like this, it’s best to end up with as many prizes as possible as opposed to nothing, because it legitimizes the work and takes it beyond the aspect of controversy. But I don’t think there was any “risk” to the film. Others are much more risky; there’s much more opportunity for risk in life. But it’s the kind of film you only want to make with Michael Haneke. I knew I was going to be protected, in a way. I was never embarrassed, because he knows exactly what he should show and what he shouldn’t.

What Erika does in the film, her obsessions and compulsions — spying on the couple at the drive-in, putting broken glass in the pocket of a romantic rival — should make her seem pathetic, but the remarkable thing to me is that she never really loses her dignity, she commands your respect in a way. How did you and Haneke collaborate to strike that balance?
I think he just paid a lot of attention to what we are doing. Usually, nothing more than that makes a great director. But Haneke, more than everything else, knows how to listen. And I think he never wanted to be too sentimental about the story, because then it would be a pure melodrama. As a director, he’s like Erika — she seeks the purest feelings, and she’s not sentimental.

What was the most challenging scene?
There wasn’t a more challenging scene than the other, really. Haneke works very hard to make the situations as believable as possible. Too often, cinema bumps into something. But Haneke feels that if you are to feel something on-screen, you have to invent something on-screen to make it the truth. That’s why I think his cinema is so powerful. His main search as a director is to give people a real emotional experience.

Haneke is a strange mixture of something very mental and something very physical. There’s something very sophisticated in the way he investigates human beings. He uses all the tools of the most classical films: there’s something of the Hitchcockian suspense film in The Piano Teacher.

About Erika’s relationship with her mother. The two of them share a bed, and in one scene, Erika throws herself on top of the mother. It looks like it could’ve been written as an incestuous encounter, but it doesn’t really play that way.
Exactly. It’s funny, most of the time, it’s men who have the most difficulties watching that scene. For me, all the scenes of the film lead you to that scene. It’s like Erika is a little girl who wants to experience her mother’s body, and what it implies — a sense of love, a sense of desire, a sense of mystery. She raises up the gown and says, “I saw the hair of your sex.” To me, that line is ‘I want to understand how I came out of you. I want to understand how I was born, how you made me, where your pleasure comes from.”

She’s trying to understand herself.
Exactly. On paper, it clearly appeared to be a scary incest scene. But what’s taking place is a veil is being lifted. It’s all that she can’t express with a man, she expresses with her mother. It’s like an orgasm, but in the sense of liberation. It’s amazing, but at this moment I could tell how disturbed people were by this. And you don’t see a thing. But the idea of a young woman jumping on the older woman, I think there’s something&nbsp.&nbsp.&nbsp. very hard to admit at that moment. I think it has something to do with the age. If it was a young girl jumping on a younger woman — if the mother was much, much younger — it wouldn’t be so upsetting.

In an earlier interview, you called the film a “parody of melodrama.” What do you mean by that?
The film, in a way, has a very classical structure. There are three real characters you can identify with, you have this climax, it’s a love story. The film could be much more serious if it involved a real love triangle. But instead of being the man and the woman and the husband, it’s the mother and the daughter and the man. So already there’s a certain distance to a classical structure, but the structure is there. There’s a certain ironic distance. You laugh a number of times. Haneke is very close to that, too — the uncomfortable fringe between something you want to be compassionate to and something ironic.

Debra Winger recently returned to films after a six-year hiatus; she said there weren’t roles for over-40 women that interested her. You, on the other hand, have had some of your best roles after 35. Do you attribute that to cultural differences or good luck? If you were an American actress, might you have dropped out?
But look at Sissy Spacek this year. She’s more than 40, and she found a good role, no? I think it depends on the actress. Although Debra Winger is definitely a great actress. I don’t know. I have no idea about that. It’s not an issue for me.

You have no complaints?
None. Debra Winger should come to France. We’d take good care of her.

The Piano Teacher opened in New York on March 29.

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