Academic journal article CineAction

"Do I Disgust You?" or, Tirez Pas Sur la Pianiste

Academic journal article CineAction

"Do I Disgust You?" or, Tirez Pas Sur la Pianiste

Article excerpt

Michael Haneke's latest film has received, to say the least, a mixed reception, both from critics and from audiences. Its Grand Prix at Cannes (plus the awards to its two leading actors) must be seen as something of an act of courage on the part of the jury. Many have found the film disgusting and/or ridiculous; in my own experience, since its release it has provoked derisive or embarrassed laughter from numerous spectators unable to accept the alleged excesses of (especially) its later developments. It's true of course that Erika/Isabelle Huppert, like Hitchcock's Marnie, whom in certain respects she resembles, represents an extreme case, yet her problems with sexuality are deeply rooted within (indeed, are the product of) the fundamental contradictions of our culture. Who, within our civilization, can claim to be sexually healthy, and what exactly would this mean?--a 'perfect' traditional monogamous marriage-and-family?--the celebration of total sexual freedom/promiscuity?--the unashamed enjoyment of pornog raphy?--strict heterosexuality?--perfectly balanced bisexuality?--the freedom from traditional constraints that characterizes much of 'queer' culture? All of these have their 'pulls', and they pull in many directions. La Pianiste might be described as the story of a woman caught between the opposite extremes.

Haneke, of course, has always divided viewers; he sets out to make films that challenge and provoke, insist upon (and invariably get) strong reactions. The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video both gained passionate defenders, but many thought the films went too far, were too concerned with 'extreme' cases (did Haneke really endorse family suicide, did he really believe teenagers would commit casual murder because they watched violent videos?). And Funny Games, it must be admitted, with its apparently gratuitous sadism, gave the attackers the ammunition they wanted: the film's undeniable power to disturb was not justified by any comparable depth of significance or balanced by any sense of how its horrors might be remedied.

A more intelligent doubt has been expressed to me by Michael Tapper, the illustrious editor of the Swedish magazine Filmhaftet in which this article first appeared (in translation): Haneke's analysis of contemporary western civilization is devastatingly accurate, but he offers no way forward, so that the films can be read as strongly conservative and reactionary, demanding a return to the values of the past. My own feeling is that Haneke is certainly intelligent enough to be aware that it is precisely the past that has produced our present and that in any case returning is impossible, and I think La Pianiste provides convincing confirmation of this. One cannot say--and has no right to expect--that Haneke provides answers to the contemporary sickness: no one else has any, so why should he? What he can, and does, do is throw an extraordinarily vivid and searching light on certain major aspects of western culture's progressive deterioration, and he does so in a way that demands response.

Erika's behavior (which seems to me, given the data with which Haneke provides us, absolutely logical, step by step) can in fact only be understood within the context of our sexual history over the past hundred years, our 'progress' from neurosis-breeding repression to what some have hopefully regarded as sexual liberation, which has proven, in practice, to be simply another form of imprisonment. The question as to whether a figure as grotesquely repressive as Erika's mother could still exist in today's world seems to me immaterial: we can argue that Haneke is claiming the right to a certain artistic licence in order to juxtapose our sexual past with our sexual present, in order to show them in the starkest light as at once opposites and complements, the former inevitably producing the latter. My own response to the film (it is my duty to confess frankly) has been highly personal: I identify with Erika totally. …

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