The Piano Teacher (2001) is a drama about the relationship between a sexually repressed middle-age woman and an aggressive younger man. This is what happens when an incautious masochist encounters a real sadist.
(Note: all of the quotations are from the film’s English subtitles. I don’t understand French well enough to follow it without assistance. If there are nuances that aren’t captured in the English translation, I apologize.)
Professor Erika Kohout is a piano teacher. While strict and professional in her public life, she lives with her mother in a codependent relationship. They even sleep side by side, in two single beds pushed together. Middle-aged now, Erika has been so infantilized by her mother, and so cut off from “normal” sexual experience, that her sexual expression is a bit unusual.
She watches video porn in a booth in an adult shop, and smells the tissues men have left from masturbating. She cuts herself in her bathroom and accidentally bleeds at the dinner table with her mother. She spies on couples making out in their cars at a drive-in theatre. She keeps a box full of rope, hoods and other toys under her bed, apparently unused.
At a recital, Erika meets Walter, a young (age unspecified) man. Erika describes her favorite music. “Have you read [Theodor] Adorno on Schumann’s Fantasia in C Major? […] He talks of his twilight. It’s not Schumann bereft of reason, but just before. A fraction before. He knows he’s losing his mind. It torments him but he clings on, one last time. It’s being aware of what it means to lose oneself before being completely abandoned.” Schumann suffered from what today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and spent the end of his life in a mental institution. This idea of total loss of control appeals to Erika.
Walter is immediately drawn to her, and becomes her student. He keeps flirting with her.
At a rehearsal, Walter encourages a girl student who came in late. Erika secretly puts broken glass in the girl’s coat pocket, causing her to cut her hand.
Erika says to Walter, “be her brave protector.” She goes to the woman’s bathroom and locks herself in the stall. Walter locks himself with her in the bathroom, and pulls her out of the stall. What follows is an awkward scene of two people who don’t really know what they want, trying to assert control. Erika becomes more controlling, keeping her distance while giving him a hand job, then a blow job.
Hanneke shot this scene of him from the waist up, with her on her knees, out of frame. Both of them remain fully clothed.
Walter backs down and follows her orders. “I’ll write down what you can do to me,” she says. “All my desires on paper for you to peruse at will. […] I’ve no desire to touch that [his penis] now.” She forbids him to finish himself off. She washes her hands and rinses her mouth at sink. “I won’t touch you again. I want you to stay like that, that’s all. Facing me! Don’t put it away.”
Walter: “You should know what you can and can’t do to a man. […] The playing field has to be level.”
When she starts to leave, Walter says he’ll do as she orders.
She opens the door, but comes back and handjobs him. Steps away. “You will receive my instructions. By letter. Or face to face. Or maybe over the phone. Now, you can put it away. Facing me.”
Walter’s masculine pride will only allow him to treat the encounter as a joke, as if she can’t possibly be serious in her commands.
At their next lesson, Walter keeps pushing Erika for intimacy. She says, “I have no feelings. Get that into your head. If ever I do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.” She gives him a letter containing her instructions.
Walter doesn’t, and instead follows her home. She lets him in, and they go into her bedroom. While her mother eavesdrops through the closed door, Walter reads her letter aloud.
This turns out to be minutely detailed instructions about how he is to (mis)treat her. “On the contrary, if I beg, tighten my bonds, please. Adjust the belt by at least 2 or 3 holes. The tighter the better. Then, gag me with some stockings I will have ready. Stuff them in so hard that I’m incapable of making any sound. […] Next, take off the blindfold, please, and sit down on my face, and punch me in the stomach to force me to thrust my tongue in your behind.” (Cf. Samuel Steward’s detailed forms on how his tops were to treat him, and Sacher-Masoch’s contracts with his real and fictional dominatrices.)
He stops reading. “Is this supposed to be serious? You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? You want a slap?” Paradoxically, he’s threatening a masochist with punishment.
Erika is definitely topping Walter from the bottom. All of her sexuality is apparently academic until now. She’s built up these masochistic fantasies in her head over decades of chastity, but they are divorced from any real-world experience. This is her tightly controlled personality: even her debasement must be strictly managed.
Walter asks, “What will all this open up for me? Maybe you’d open your cultured mouth and comment on this shit. No?”
She says, “Above all, say things like that, so that I realize just how powerless I am.”
Erika reaches under bed and pulls out a box containing coils of rope, a black hood, chains, etc. She says, “Are you angry with me? […] After all, love is built on banal things. […] Think it over. You have my phone number. […] Aren’t you talking to me? Do I disgust you? That’s not necessary. The urge to be beaten has been in me for years.”
She says he gives the orders, decides what she wears. He remains silent.
Then he says, “You’re sick. You need treatment.”
“If you want to hit me, hit me.”
“I don’t want to soil my hands. No one would touch your sort, even with gloves on.” He throws her letter at her. “I swear I loved you. You don’t even know what it is. Right now, you repulse me. Fuck it.” He leaves.
The most sadistic thing you can say to a masochist is “no.”
The problem here is the feedback loop between her masochistic fantasies and his violent contempt for her, for not conforming to his fantasies of romance. He insults her, she is aroused by it and demands more, which makes him even more angry. They can’t put the treatment she wants into a contained area of their relationship.
Erika is so distraught by Walter’s rejection that, in bed next to her mother, she tries to have sex with her mother. The mother pushes her away and tells her to think about an upcoming performance.
Erika goes to see Walter playing ice hockey. “Forgive me for the letter. I’m an idiot. I shouldn’t have done that to you out of the blue. Like you said, we should have talked first. […] I’ll never write anything you don’t want. You tell me what you want, okay?” She tries to give him oral, but then she pushes him off and throws up.
She wants to try again, now that she’s “clean.” He says she stinks.
The next time, he comes to her apartment and yells up to her. “You’re a witch, a pervert! You want to give everyone your illness, don’t you?” She lets him in, over her mother’s objections.
Walter locks the mother in the bedroom, and keeps slapping and hitting Erika, while quoting her letter. “At your service, dear lady,” he says.
He keeps blaming her, with classic “She was asking for it” rationalizations. “You know, I do realise that all this isn’t very nice of me. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’re partly responsible. […] You can’t get a guy going, then take refuge on the ice.”
Erika protests as he keeps hitting her: “Not my face! Not my hands!” She lifts her white patterned nightshirt to staunch her bleeding nose, revealing her breast; this is the only moment of visible nudity in the film.
Walter: “Why do you do that? I calm down and you try to cross me. Be a little cooperative, fuck it. I’d be happy to learn to play. But not if we only ever play by your rules. You can’t delve around inside people, then reject them. […] Be nice to me, please.”
To be blunt, he rapes her on the floor of her hallway.
Erika: “Stop, please.”
Walter: “You have to give a bit. You can’t leave me all alone now. Love me, please.”
This is a grotesque scene of her at her weakest, lying under him, as still as a corpse.
Walter gets off her. “I’d appreciate it if you tell no one. Anyhow, it’s for your own good. You can’t humiliate a man that way and… It’s not possible. […] Will you be all right? Do you need anything? Okay? You know, love isn’t everything. See you, then.” He leaves.
In the final scene, Erika sees Walter at a concert hall, who acts like nothing happens. Alone in the empty lobby, she cuts her shoulder with a kitchen knife and leaves the hall. This is kind of the opposite of Secretary, in which the self-cutting is her rejection of normative heterosexuality.
Walter is following his own sexual script. He doesn’t understand consent or negotiation. He is simultaneously drawn to her sexully, angry at her hot and cold vacillations, and contemptuous of her masochism. He pushed his way through several layers of resistance to get to her, and thus assumes that all of her boundaries are permeable. Being beaten and raped is what she says she wants, so why not? There are probably his own masculine insecurities at work.
This is compounded by her masochism. His violent treatment resembles what she has been fantasizing about for decades. She doesn’t know that she can say ‘no’ to this treatment, not that that would stop Walter.
Walter is treating her the way he thinks that she thinks she wants to be treated. Problem is, neither Erika nor Walter understand there’s a big difference between what people fantasize about and the physical actuality.
As I see it, Erika’s masochistic fantasies and desires aren’t necessarily a sign of mental illness. In principle, she could learn to experience them safely and pleasurably. But her first attempt at any kind of sexual relationship is with a man who is volatile, confused, inexperienced, kink-shaming, and disrespectful of boundaries, and that leads to abuse and rape.
That isn’t necessarily the film’s intended message. It could also be interpreted that Erika’s masochism stems from a combination of sexual frustration and low self-esteem, which has kept her from having a “normal” sexuality. This places the blame on Erika, or more precisely on her mother, than on Walter, who is too young to know any better.
He regards his treatment of her as somehow “fixing” her. Corrective rape is usually perpetrated on homosexual people, but it’s more generally about punishing people who don’t conform to gender norms. Walter initially idealizes Erika, but when he sees how much of a masochist she is, he forces his idea of “normal” sex on her. This is a crime against a woman for being masochistic.