Last Wednesday A and I were at Scarecrow, where we rented two-for-ones, something we haven’t done together for a while. In addition to Hard Boiled, which I picked out for myself (and watched alone, aside from my roommates walking through the living room), we got and enjoyed Jezebel (I finally get Bette Davis now) and Funny Ha Ha (which I’d only seen about 20 minutes of at my friend Kate’s apartment early last year; knowingly barely articulate and frighteningly accurate). We also got The Piano Teacher; we both knew something of its reputation, meaning it was supposed to be very good, especially Isabelle Huppert, and it allegedly had a very disturbing sex scene. Monday we began watching it, and during the scene in the bathroom, A left the room and asked me to turn it off. We went back to it Tuesday and she was similarly disturbed soon after; we barely watched ten more minutes. I finished it this afternoon on my own, before returning it. Aside from Irreversible, of which I saw the first few minutes at an advance screening in New York and had to be carried out of the screening room after blacking out and convulsing, this is the most genuinely disturbing movie I think I’ve ever seen.
It is also an incredibly well made film, with really powerful acting. It doesn't step wrong once. On paper, the material would seem all too easy to do badly with, and that doesn't happen. Isabelle Huppert is frankly astonishing--she handles some of the most difficult shit I could imagine trying to put one's self in the place of with such grace, and so believably, that it's easily one of the best performances I've ever seen. But the material is really fucked up. I don't mean that there's s/m in it--that in itself isn't bothersome. It’s Huppert’s character (and her mother) that really dig under your skin. When A stopped it the second time, I was annoyed--how much worse could it get? When I picked up where we left off, I realized how much: it was the scene where Huppert does something unspeakable to a student behind the student's back--"nasty" doesn't cover it. I was fine for much of the second half--Haeneke, as we both noticed from seeing Cache (Hidden) a while back, builds dread by keeping the more extreme action at arm’s length, making it both easy and difficult to watch. But I had to watch the last 7 or 8 minutes on fast-forward; the room was closing in on me.
I realize this sounds overly dramatic. But The Piano Teacher is maybe the first movie I’ve ever seen that I simultaneously think is a masterpiece and wouldn't recommend to anyone who values her own peace of mind. Greil Marcus, naming Huppert his Artist of the Year for City Pages in 2002 (scroll about three-quarters down), ended his encomium, “The movie is a hole in the world.” I’d read that at the time and thought, oh, whatever, Greil being hyperbolic again. (Especially after the bits about "Lose Yourself," which I've never liked, and The Private Press, which I like but don't love.) I read it now and think, Jesus, that’s pretty much it.