In the realm of the senses

Musician seeks lower form of expression.


written and directed by Michael Haneke with Isabelle Huppert, Annie Giradot, and BenoMagimel opens June 21 at Seven Gables

WHO SUFFERS MOST in Michael Haneke's harrowing exploration of sexual pathology? Professor Erika Kohut's Vienna Conservatory students, who must endure her contempt (and far worse)? The professor herself (Isabelle Huppert), balancing on a literal razor's edge between control and abyss? Or is it the audience, so held by Huppert's icy power that we're unable to look away from her awful, self-willed degradation?

I think it's us, hands down. In 2001, Cannes rewarded Huppert for her rigor and co-star BenoMagimel for holding his ground in their sexual power struggle, while Haneke saw his film take the Grand Jury Prize. (Huppert also just won SIFF's popular Best Actress award.)

We get to decide whether Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek's 1983 portrait of a woman asserting her right to choose a man, "and also to dictate how he tortures her," should have been left on the page or to lighter hands than Haneke's. (His dissection of violence in 1997's Funny Games was summed up nicely by English critic Geoff Andrews as "a masterpiece that is, at times, just barely watchable.")

Just barely watchable certainly covers this 40-ish professor's suffocating home life. Erika's father has long since been institutionalized; her rigidly controlling mother (Annie Giradot) slashes her daughter's clothes if she comes home late.

Erika's impassive rebellion takes the form of fetishistic visits to porno malls or delicate acts of self-mutilation, always with us at her side. Gradually she takes greater and greater risks of being caught, although it's not until the arrival of young piano phenom Walter Klemmer (Magimel) that Erika finds the ideal partner for her game of domination and abasement.

Walter may be our first hint that all this is a fervent intellectual wet dream. Boyish, playful, and staggeringly good-looking, Walter's not just a pianist of exceptional range (Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, and Schoenberg), but also an engineering student and a hell-for-leather hockey player. (Endanger his pianist's hands? Never considered.) He matches Erika's scorn with declarations of love until she finally allows him to see her pervasive masochism. At last, her "Do I disgust you?" gets the answer she desperately needs.

Since Huppert's dedication forbids us to doubt her sincerity, and Haneke's own rigor forbids anything as sentimental as a resolution, what are we left with after 130 minutes of escalating shock? Pity and an echoing sense of waste.

I say that's pathology, and I say to hell with it.

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