It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There is a self-assurance in Isabelle Huppert that defies all explanation. I interviewed her in 1977, asking her how she got her start in the movies. She knocked on the door of a Paris studio, she said, and announced, "I am here." Was she kidding? I peered at her. I thought not.
In Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher," which won three awards at Cannes 2001 (best actress, actor and film), she plays a bold woman with a secret wound. She is Erika Kohut, 40ish, a respected instructor at a conservatory of music in Vienna. Demanding, severe, distant, unsmiling, she leads a secret life of self-mutilation. That she sleeps in the same bed with her domineering mother is no doubt a clue--but to what? Erika is fascinated with the sexual weaknesses and tastes of men. There is a scene where she visits a porn shop in Vienna, creating an uncomfortable tension by her very presence. The male clients are presumably there to indulge their fantasies about women, but faced with a real one, they look away, disturbed or ashamed. If she were obviously a prostitute, they could handle that, but she's apparently there to indulge her own tastes, and that takes all the fun out of it, for them. She returns their furtive glances with a shriveling gaze.
She has a handsome young student named Walter (Benoit Magimel). She notices him in a particular way. They have a clash of wills. He makes it clear he is interested in her. Not long after, in one of the school's restrooms, they have a sexual encounter--all the more electrifying because while she shocks him with her brazen behavior, she refuses to actually have sex with him. She wants the upper hand.
What games does she want to play? A detailed and subtle plan of revenge against her mother is involved, and Walter, who is not really into sadomasochism, allows himself to be enlisted out of curiosity, or perhaps because he hopes she will yield to him at the end of the scenario. Does it work out that way? Some audience members will dislike the ending, but with a film like this any conventional ending would be a cop-out.