Archive for the ‘Michael Haneke’ Category

‘Cough’ … Cock … Cure!

February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine’s Day. Speaking of love, I have a burning question! Would “Dora,” the subject of Freud’s famous case-study, have been better off if she sucked some cock?

I know I sure would.

Understanding Dora is crucial to understanding and, if you care to, condemning Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001). The first thing all reviews and summaries of this film point out is that Huppert’s character, Erika Kohut, is a masochist. Wow! This is an astute observation based on some truly casuitical interpretation. Such fine analysis turns on subtle nuances like the scene in which Erika – a cutter – sits on the edge of the bathtub just before dinner, slicing into her vagina. Other possible self-cruelty is evidenced in her flagrantly spying on a couple having sex at a drive-in themed movie theater; writing her lover a letter in which she begs to be beaten and degraded; sticking the edge of a knife into her chest; quoting T.A. Adorno.

Erika teaches at the Conservatorium of Music in Vienna where she brow-beats students out of the false hopes they might cherish of becoming accomplished musicians. (Let me tell you, having lived with a cellist who gave up his music career to fix the screen-savers of investment bankers, there is no one out there less optimistic and supportive than a failed musician.) Kohut, herself, still dreams of success well into her middle-age, but only because she is driven by her controlling, live-in, mother (Annie Girardot).

Geez, mom, you bitch! Can I get a second alone with my boyfriend?!

Before she commences her affair with infatuated student, Walter Klemner,* Erika lives an entirely fantasy based sex life. In addition to spying on couples fucking, she “sneaks” out after work to the back room of a porn shop where she watches porn and sniffs cum stained tissues. Every attempt she’s ever made to embody her own sexual life has been crushed and frustrated underground by her over-bearing mother (they share a bed which leads to an utterly insane lesbian moment between them). One of the film’s first scenes shows Erika arriving home late, with the excuse that she was at a practice session that ran over. She and her mother quickly find themselves in a fist-fight that reveals the “slutty” new dress Kohut has stashed in her bag. Like a jealous lover, her mother also goes through Erika’s closet looking for revealing dresses to toss into the trash. While they are in bed together, Erika berates her mother over a destroyed dress, arguing that the cut was “classique.”

Awwww, mommy… you suck. I wuv you!

I’ve seen and loved all of Haneke’s movies despite the fact that they are tortuous and make me hate myself. While he definitely has a sadistic streak, this story is hysterically over the top even for him. I watched the movie once through, and then tried it again for ten minute spurts. I wanted to see if the plot could go ten minutes without some act of sheer hysteria, deep character ugliness, or unbelievable perversity. It couldn’t. Without constant repetition of these elements, the dvd would have burst into flame and taken me with it. I even started to keep a list of the insanity, but Haneke and Hupert successfully worked my nerves far past patient list-making. This movie reaches heights of obscenity that take me back to Sexy Beast (2000) with its long opening shot of an obese man in a speedo.

As far as I can tell, he seems to be trying to say *something* about the impossibility of trying to live your fantasies. Erika’s life begins to spiral out of control when she, apparently for the first time in her life, receives sexual attention from a man, young Walter. Instinctively fearing that Klemner’s romantic streak is just typical youthful infatuation that will quickly run its sexual course, leaving her alone once more, Erika over-compensates by doing her excruciating best to extend every single aspect of their affair. For example, when blowing him in the bathroom of the Conservatory, she refuses him a climax. Erika also berates Walter when he tries to finish himself off, announcing that if he touches himself one more time she will walk out the door ending it forever. She undermines the fundamental basis of the blow job, by refusing to allow him to even grasp and guide her head!

The most over the top moment is pretty easy to miss. It takes place shortly after the commencement of Erika and Walter’s affair when, during piano practice, Erika begins to cough repeatedly. Walter explains the cough to her — she is “uptight” — instructing her to relax. He is explicit that some fucking will cure her cough. To probably any trained academic, the reference here to Freud’s Dora is unmistakable. For most people, this would probably pass innocuously, but to me it came like a punch in the face.**

Adorno-quoting masochist

Dora was the name Freud put down in his case files for a young lady who, among her many problems, suffered a intestinal problems as well as a persistent cough that led to asthma attacks. Ever tactful, Freud suggested to her that her cough was choking something back, and never flinching from his own desire to speak, he suggested that perhaps that something was the desire to suck her dad off. I can’t imagine why Dora would terminate her treatment abruptly. Lacan would later argue — it’s complicated and it was years ago when I read this — but something like Dora couldn’t come to terms with desiring men because she never fully comprehended femininity. But then again, who does? I, sure as shit, don’t.

The coughing scene is pure Psychoanalytic ‘Sploitation, and it’s one of the more shocking things I’ve seen Haneke try. Sorry to spoil the movie, but sucking cock doesn’t get Erika anywhere. She gags and chokes, and I’m fairly certain from Walter’s shouts of pain and “you’re hurting me,” that she uses her teeth. On her list of things she wants Walter to do is for him to beat her, but when he tries it she crumples on the floor yelling “not my face!” Nothing is like she imagined it, and her attempts to realize her fantasies drive Walter to more quickly reveal his inner frat boy.

I recommend this movie. Isabelle Hupert was awesome, and having the actress who played the ideal Emma Bovary play Erika was casting genius. It really made me hate myself and tested the limits of my cinematic endurance. I will not say that I liked it. But really, was I supposed to?

*Classic youtube comment about a clip with Walter: ” he reminds me of the leadsinger of the goo goo dolls.” Gotta love youtube commenters.

** The cough is an addition of Haneke’s. It’s not part of the story of the novel.


Cache, or The Eye of God is Hidden

November 1, 2007

In Cache, prominent book critic and pater familias, Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteil), comes home to find his wife in possession of a surveillance tape made of his street-front and home. Host of a literary discussion show, Georges is used to being on camera, however, he finds himself unsure of how to cope with the creepy video tapes that continue to appear. Minimalist inasmuch as they are videos of the front of his house that last for hours, they are sometimes delivered alongside unpleasant drawings of what appears to be a bloodied child; it becomes clear after a while that George’s stalker knows him. Very possibly, the stalker knows him better than his wife does.

As I first watched it, I strongly suspected their son of creating the tapes. 14 year olds are already proficient in video, and the badly made drawings could indicate someone with more skill at photoshop than in drawing by hand. Moreover, the video tapes and drawings rapidly expose the fissures and underlying hostility between Georges and wife, Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) — the kind of fissures a child would know better than anyone else. But the intimate problems of couples do tend to be universal, and the persecution complex infects a spouse more quickly than the person being stalked (they are threatened by what they cannot understand — a secretiveness that seems to be a judgment upon them). The film knows that that’s usually the one who goes to the police and urges the partner to report the violation. This, of course, is something Georges can’t handle — exposure of his secrets — caught in a spiral of paranoid bad conscience.

Over the course of the movie, another possible culprit enters into suspicion, namely, Majid — the son of the servants who worked for Georges’ parents when he was a child, and hitherto forgotten by Georges. Majid is the locus of his guilt/resentment. The servant couple disappeared back in the sixties during an Algerian protest of their treatment in the Republic. This is a moment that seemed to have vanished from the history books until recently: French soldiers cast hundreds of massacred Algerians into the Seine in 1961. Discovering that their servants were gone, and the son orphaned, Majid was to become Georges’ new brother.

Director Haneke refuses to lapse into “sociology” and does not soapbox about the historical event. Rather, his approach is more elliptical… more concerned with how the introduction of a new brother threatened Georges, who began to experience Majid in a hostile light, spreading lies about him to sour the adoption. A relationship that was supposed to be for life is pre-emptively truncated, forever haunting Majid, but only now remembered by Georges. One of the most primal moments in the movie is when Georges recalls a protesting Majid being stuffed into a car and driven away from their home. He tells his wife he can’t remember the details, but his memories are presented in the same clarity as the surveillance video of their home.

Using the landmarks in one of the video tapes, Georges tracks Majid to his current home, where Majid appears not to understand Georges’ accusations and slits his own throat in front of Georges. A video tape of the suicide is then sent to Georges’ home shortly thereafter, appearing to absolve Majid of responsibility.

The beauty of the film lies in the trio of steady-cams that record these scenes. In an age of hand-held cameras and action movie jump-cuts, there’s a courage to the stillness of these images. The stalker’s video is indistinguishable from the “mundane” live-action filming, leaving the viewer in a state of constant tension. The one exception to this is the shot of Majid slitting his throat in Georges’ presence where the hidden video camera shoots from a higher angle, as if it were a security camera, revealing more of the spurt and Georges’ stumbling powerlessness. The images’ distance increased distance make the moment more clinical and somehow impart a greater emotional impact, especially since they can be seen over and over.

You’d think this is a film about stalking when, in fact, the focus is on guilt and rejection. A wonderful interview with director Haneke at, entitled “Cowardly and Comfortable” highlights this. The interviewer states, “Georges will never reflect on his guilt. It also remains open if he’s wrong …” to which Haneke responds:

Georges should really question his whole way of life. But people never want to face up to that sort of thing. Not because it’d be so difficult in itself, but because the consequences are so severe. Although we know about other people’s wretchedness, it’s only in the rarest cases that we draw any consequences from it. This has what dramatic art has done since its origins. Just think of Oedipus. That’s not a bunch of laughs either.


The threat from outside brings one’s own guilt to the surface. Georges cannot cope with this.

I believe that’s how we function. There’s such a thing as a sort of emotional memory for evil deeds. When a Proustian Madeleine appears by coincidence, then it all re-emerges. And anyway, I can’t pretend I don’t come from this Judeo-Christian tradition. The issue of guilt is always in the air at such latitudes. Which is why I always come back to it. One of the thoughts which inspired the film was to confront someone with something that he’d done as a child. In cases like this we find it particularly comfortable to talk ourselves out of the problem.

I like this idea of talking oneself out of a problem. As the film winds down, Georges hides in his bed. He takes off all his clothes, shuts the curtains and tries to shut out the world. He has stolen from himself the only opportunity for closure and now must live with this aporia in his past, forever unresolvable. One can only imagine the hell he will have keeping it at arm’s length for the remainder of his life. As the credits run, we see a shot of Majid’s son and Georges’ socializing at school as a video camera records them from afar, mirroring the opening scene and hinting at a renewal of intimate violence.