La Pianiste and Haneke’s Alternative Representation of Violence
‘That's Michael Haneke's quest - to look at the mental violence in each scene. His point is not to provoke with disturbing images, his point is to provoke because he speaks about intimacy in a way that is unbearable sometimes.’ (Kino International, 2012) That is how the actress Isabelle Huppert, who plays Erika Kohut in Haneke’s film La Pianiste (2001), or The Piano Teacher, describes Haneke’s approach to cinema. This fascination with violence, is evident in recent years, where a trend has formed inside the European art house market, and especially in France. The critics use the term extreme cinema for films where filmmakers boldly introduce themes of violence and/or sexuality that seek to provoke the audience in a number of ways unthinkable for mainstream cinema. In this essay I’m going to explore some of the characteristics of extreme cinema, by examining Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. According to Tim Palmer (2006), the modern mainstream movies seek to award the viewer with instant and simple gratification but sometimes there emerges an opposite tendency, aggressive and abrasive forms of cinema that seek a more confrontational experience. (p. 22) In typical mainstream cinema, the filmmakers follow a structure that presents the viewer with plots about sympathetic characters and their sometimes dire but ultimately solvable problems. The cinematography is designed and created with the idea to bring appeal and gratification to the audience, and to satisfy all their primal senses. While the so-called extreme cinema seeks the opposite – to remove the audience from the comfort zone, to provoke thoughts and contemplation, even if it comes at the cost of an apparent aggression and abrasiveness. Of course, this is not really a novelty. Filmmakers have always sought to confront and provoke their audiences into considering and thinking about vehement problems and themes. Examples of such alternative cinema from the past are Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris or Pasolini’s Il Decameron. However, in the last 20 or so years, this has become a sort of a trend in European cinema. The goal of challenging the viewer and thinking outside of the traditionalist box is evident in the works of many European filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, Dumont, Noe, Breillat. One such filmmaker is Michael Haneke. As James Quandt (2005) notes, the modern French cinema readily explores ‘the extreme vision of women driven to limits of compulsion, sexuality, or violence in their rejection of a world that attempts to constrain or degrade them.’ And these are all themes that Haneke embraces in his films. Born in an Austrian bourgeois family, and having received a classical training in classical music and philosophy, Michael Haneke is a filmmaker who values the strength of a theme presented in subtle ways. He believes in the importance of making the audience emotionally and intellectually invested with the film. He seeks to provoke the hunger of the imagination, instead of offering immediate and simple satisfaction. Giving the viewer room and food for thought is the purpose of art – including cinema. According to Haneke, presenting the audience with ready and simple answers is even more cynical than the seemingly brash ways of alternative cinema. (The Internet Movie Database, 2012) The audience should be encouraged, by any means necessary, to take an active role in understanding and deciphering a film’s meaning – as opposed to the mainstream entertaining cinema that requires a completely passive participation from its viewers. As Peter Brunette claims ‘[a]bove all, Haneke feels that audience members must be persuaded – or forced, if necessary – to contribute to a film’s meaning themselves and to recognize their complicity in its psychological dynamics.’ (Brunette, p. 7) Haneke, as evident from his filmography, is fascinated with violence. His view on presenting violence on film is complex...
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