We all too often forget what an important educational role films can have, how much we can learn from them, how they can shape our opinions and how they can sometimes even shatter the existing social, national and religious barriers, giving us a better and more emphatic understanding of the world outside of the cultural bubble we were born into. Of course films can also do the opposite: reinforce the Eurocentric world-views, stereotypes about marginalized groups, problematic ideologies and socially constructed gender roles. It is precisely because of that that it is so wrong to view films as a simple form of entertainment; something that helps us to shut down our brain while watching meaningless action-infused CGI. Films always, even when we do not necessarily realize it, carry important social, cultural and/or political subtexts that often have an influence on our perception of the world. This why it is crucial to expose children and teenagers to good, informative, thought-provoking, although maybe not always easy to process cinematic experiences. And not only that: to also teach them how to watch films, how to read cinematic codes, how to interpret the story and how to reflectively and critically discuss about the film medium. There is undoubtedly still a long and challenging journey ahead of us before we will succeed at making film studies a respected part of a school curriculum, but Eye On Film is indeed one of the first and very much important steps into the right direction.
after two years of (somewhat irregular) blogging I have reached a far bigger readership than I have ever anticipated and I think it is time to finally take this to a more professional level and move my blog to my own private domain.
Hopefully we will all keep on reading each other regularly; however, I believe you need to start following me again, otherwise you will not be able to see my new posts in your reader. In case you do not choose to do that; thank you for supporting me for all this time. I greatly appreciate each and everyone of you who ever took the time to read a review or to leave a comment on it – all of this would not be possible without you.
All the best,
Putting micro-societal life under a microscope seems to be the territory where Vinterberg excels the most – whether he is testing complicated family bonds in an unsettling and uncompromisingly complex Dogme 95 film Festen, or examining a small community that has its strength and tolerance tested by an innocent lie in The Hunt. After temporarily leaving his typical thematic area by exploring Victorian England in last year’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, he has now returned to his native Denmark and adapted one of his stage plays into what may be his most personal film yet.
Partly inspired by Vinterberg’s own upbringing in a hippie commune in the 70’s, it explores the ups and downs of a social experiment where multiple families try to live under the same roof, living by the principles of direct democracy where each of them, no matter the age, gender or monthly income, has an equal say, where everyone’s vote (including children’s) counts and where everyone’s opinion is heard and acknowledged. At least that seems to be the original idea. However, some of the members, their good intentions aside, seem to be far from immune to expanding individualism that is tearing down the collective spirit of the 70’s hippie era and things soon turn awry as some of them start to put their own aspirations and self-fulfilments before the collective good.
Erik and Ana (Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm) are a middle-aged couple with a teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) who find themselves at a crossroad after Erik inherits a mansion-like family house, clearly too big for a family of three to live there by themselves. Erik’s initial reaction is to sell it, but Ana seems to have something very different in mind: why wouldn’t they invite some friends to live with them instead? This way they could share all the expenses while also enjoy the company of interesting individuals. However I otherwise support this way of living, this has to be read as the first alarm of what is yet to become of their marriage, since the decision is not instantly unanimous and Erik, otherwise an architecture professor, needs some convincing by his wife whose main reason of establishing a commune is the need to fill a gap that started to spread through their marriage. Since Erik likes to repeat his stories and hardly ever says something interesting or surprising anymore, she wants to expand their “family” to enrich their dinner conversations – the commune is therefore hardly the reason for their marriage to fall apart, for their relationship starts to disintegrate long before any of the new house members moves into their communal home.
The first to join them is Ole, their old nomadic friend who moves into the house with nothing but a bag of clothes and leftist literature. The next addition to the family is a couple with a sick child, then there is promiscuous Mona and a foreigner Allon who barely speaks Danish, is prone to cry whenever he gets upset and has problems holding a job for more than a few weeks. Together they make a weird and interesting group of people that seem to thoroughly entertain Ana, while bringing nothing but frustration to Erik who starts to feel like his voice is no longer heard. And as most men who feel like their ego has been neglected, he turns for attention elsewhere. However, what was supposed to be a meaningless fling with one of his students ends up turning into a full-on affair. But it is not until his daughter accidentally walks in on him that he decides to come clean to the rest of the household, which throws the entire family, as well as the film itself, into a downward spiral of messy emotions and melodrama.
I would have wished for a fuller and more substantial development of the supporting characters, but as the film progresses they slowly start to fade into the background instead, clearing the battleground for the initial family members. It is now Erik who ties to push their social experiment even further by suggesting that he and his new girlfriend Emma should move in the commune while his wife is still living there – and it is here that the film starts to delve into melodrama all too frequently. But Dyrholm nonetheless manages to give a fantastic and nuanced performance as a woman who is trying to be open-minded about her husband’s affair, trying to accept and befriend his new woman, but gradually breaks down and completely falls apart, losing her job and family along the way.
There is one event in particular that shows how direct democracy, while great in theory, does not really work when people entitled to a vote do not perceive one another as entirely equal. After Erik’s initial proposition of Emma and him moving in, the rest of the household appears to be hesitant; they can see Anna’s poor mental condition and they don’t think their moving in would be good for an open and carefree communal life that they have established. Them voting Erik and Emma out of the house is, of course, the right call. However, this vote could have counted only if all of them would indeed be equal, without anyone having the authority over everyone else – which, of course, is not the case. This is, after all, Erik’s house – he is the owner who was prepared to cooperate at their decision making until he found himself in danger of getting thrown out of his home by people who moved in to help maintain the house and share the expenses. It is also Erik and Ana who are paying for the majority of the bills since they are the only ones with steady and well-paid jobs, while others hardly contribute anything when it comes to money. And it is here that their experimental way of living finally shows its messed-up baseline: not everyone’s voice can be equally important and equally heard if they are not, in fact, equal. For complete social equality to exist, economic equality needs to be achieved first – because as long as some will own and earn unproportionally more than the rest they will undoubtedly perceive themselves as more entitled to making decisions and expressing opinions. This scene may not be one of the most memorable in the film, but it is, in my opinion, a crucial one, for it is here that the hierarchy among the members of the commune is established and where democracy as well as their somewhat socialistic way of living, is finally and irreversibly defeated.
As we came to expect from Vinterberg, this is an excellent and engaging study of family dynamics, as well as of power relations and possibilities of collective living in general. How far are we prepared to go at making our private affairs public, of collectively making our life decisions? Of sharing everything we own and putting collective needs above our own? Not very far, is what Vinterberg is trying to show us – and this message seems to resonate even more in today’s world of beastly capitalism.
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen
Running Time: 111 minutes
This film was supposed to be about the worst superheroes ever – about the bad-ass, chaotic, nihilistic criminals who are brought together to fight an even bigger, other-wordly evil that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. But as it turns out, they’re hardly anything of the above. Sure, they’re criminals – something that the film quickly establishes by letting us know they are all in high-protection Louisiana prison. But where’s all the chaos, anarchy, things spinning out of control when these inexplicably bad guys get set free? They’re far from the “worst heroes ever”, as Amanda Waller introduces them before turning them into her soldiers – not only that, they can hardly even pass as actually being bad. And as if that’s not enough, the film seems to be disturbingly aware of that for we are constantly reminded that they are, in fact, dangerous and evil, working on the wrong side of the law. “We’re the bad guys!” Harley Quinn points out defensively when she stops in front of the store window to steal a purse – just in case we forgot because based on their actions they seem anything but.
The film is an inconsistent mess that, as the story progresses, makes less and less sense. Perhaps one of the biggest questions that the film doesn’t manage to answer is why Waller actually puts the group of unrehabilitated criminals together, since the negotiations leading to their release happen before the biggest evil of them all, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) escapes from her captivity. Waller’s shady persona is otherwise perfectly captured by Viola Davis, but as far as the plot is concerned, we hardly ever know what her motivations are or where are her constant manipulations supposed to lead.
That being said, perhaps the biggest problem I had with the film is how it is supposed to be about the members of the Suicide Squad, yet it fails to let us know who they are actually supposed to be. Only Deadshot and Harley Quinn (and to a lesser extent, Diablo) manage to rise above the rest of the crew with flashback stories that give us some minimal insight into their personal life and that, as a result, also reveal the more human side of their criminal persona. Sure, the human part makes them weaker and more vulnerable, but it also establishes them as real characters, while the rest of the group ends up being somewhat forgettable and in retrospect quite insignificant.
Will Smith does a good enough job portraying Deadshot, but the one that really and uncompromisingly stands out has to be Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Margot perfectly captures her disturbing joyfulness, unpredictability and chaotic tendencies and manages to lift the character beyond the “hot but crazy chick” that she could easily become would this part end up in someone else’s hands, since most of the remarks made by other squad members made it crystal clear that she wasn’t supposed to be much more than a sexualized object whose presence was primarily to visually please the male audience. And director’s numerous close-up shots of her bending down in the tiniest hot pants was simply another proof that she wasn’t meant to be much more than a caricature of a frat boy’s wet dream.
If David Ayer managed to spend half as much time on establishing and exploring her character as he did on close-ups of her overly-exposed ass this would have been a much better film. However, portrayed as she is, she never manages to establish herself as anything else but Joker’s counterpart, as her whole existence, her every act, seems to be for and because of him. And even Margot’s charisma and undeniable talent can’t help much about the fact that her character simply does not have her own identity.
When the film finally tries to give us some insight into Harley’s head it once again manages to fail. When crossing paths with the Enchantress, each member of the squad starts hallucinating their deepest desires and life-goals due to her unlimited magic powers and this results in a unique opportunity to see into Harley’s subconscious; to see past her current madness and into the person, a psychiatrist, that she once was. And to my complete bewilderment this subconscious dream was Harley living a perfect little family life right from some 50’s lifestyle catalogue for women, while being married and having kids with Joker. The hallucination didn’t make any sense – even Deadshot, otherwise obsessed with getting back to his daughter, imagines defeating Batman and not being with his family. Where did this dream came from? If anything, her dream should be about escaping the suffocating power that Joker has over her – about breaking free from the psychologically and physically abusive relationship they are in. This would open up doors to establish her as a character that could exist on her own, as well as address the problem of domestic violence that their dysfunctional love life clearly represents. The film thus makes a poor choice of portraying their love story as a romantic one, because it is anything but. They are far from being equal partners in crime, Bonnie and Clyde of Gotham City. They are more like Sid and Nancy, where madness is their heroin and where Nancy eventually ends up dead due to a stab wound.
“I sleep when I want, where I want and with whomever I want” Harley points out at the very beginning of the film, as if this is somehow the core idea of female empowerment. But there is hardly anything empowering about her – true, she walks around with a baseball bat, but below her smudged make-up and pantless cheerleader appearance she is hardly anything else but a damaged, vulnerable and, as far as her hidden core values go, conservative character who is unable to break free from a destructive and abusive relationship.
Jared Leto does a fairly good job as the Joker, but since he went all Method-acting for a year (which resulted in a few disturbing on-set incidents that I wouldn’t mind characterising as harassment) I need to point out that there wasn’t a moment where I would forget that I am watching Leto desperately trying to fill Heath Ledger’s shoes. This was one, albeit perfectly adequate, very self-aware performance and all the publicity that was made due to his unprecedented commitment to the role just shows how unproportional Leto’s ego is compared to his acting abilities since he won an Oscar.
However, the weakest link of the film and where the story really fails to engage has to be the character of Enchantress. An ancient magical spirit that possesses the body of an archaeologist June Moone has to be one of the least interesting villains I have ever seen on screen and Cara Delevingne’s poor acting doesn’t help to lift this character above cringe-worthily awful. Her army of blobby faceless creatures also doesn’t manage to make things interesting and what we’re essentially left with is a messy and inconsistent story that threw all the potential of elevating this genre to something different and potentially more interesting out of the window.
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer (based on a comic book by John Ostrander)
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne
Running Time: 123 minutes
Lou Clark with her naive happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be a British variation of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – her main purpose in this awful film is, after all, to bring happiness and the will to live to the male protagonist; something that she is supposed to achieve with her kooky style, unrealistically positive outlook on life and a constant smile on her face (that in all honesty makes her look more mentally unstable than anything else). It all begins when she unexpectedly loses her job at the bakery where she got stuck working for far too long and starts searching for a new employment. Her being from a working-class family and completely unqualified for most of the jobs on the market doesn’t make it easy for her to figure out what to do next – this is until the aristocratic family of the region doesn’t call out in need of an assistant.
It is the Prince Charming who recently suffered from an incident that gradually comes to the rescue to our Manic Pixie Cinderella. And while the film leads us into believing that it is all about Lou showing him the meaning and joys of life, it soon shifts into something very different. For it is ultimately him, the aristocratic son, who shows her what life is really about: foreign films, classical movies and exotic travels. He shows her how fantastic and more fulfilling life is among the “cultivated”, richer and privileged – and it is far from surprising that she eventually ends up falling in love with him (or rather, with the life that he represents).
Now, I do not want to imply that it is impossible to fall in love with a disabled person – but I do want to point out how utterly ridiculous and unnecessary the choice to make the quadriplegic character an English aristocrat was. I would guess that most of the people who were unfortunate enough to have had an illness or an accident that left them in a wheelchair do not belong to the 1%, nor do they have a family who has the means to re-build their entire house and change the stables (!) into a new apartment where everything is easily accessible. While the film would certainly like us to believe that it is about quadriplegia and the impossibly complex question of life and death that such a condition usually brings with it, I do not believe that this is the case here. Him being in a wheelchair seems more like a plot-device that helps Lou’s character to develop and that makes us somewhat more invested into the love story that would never had happened if it weren’t for his unfortunate condition (since it is more than obvious that he would not have spend a minute of his time with this simple, uneducated, overly-nice and naive girl if he would still have been his old, healthy self).
Lou (played by Emilia Clarke) is a plain and uninteresting character that does not do much but spend time with her family and her self-involved boyfriend. She does not seem to have friends outside of this circle of people and she sure does not seem to have any interests in life (besides fashion; the most stereotypical female interest there is). She is also one of the least independent women I have seen portrayed in cinema lately – the kind of a woman who lets men to take her for granted and who never expresses her discomfort or disagreement because she does not want to offend anybody. And it is not until she meets a sarcastic, cynical, well-educated, well-travelled and rich beyond our comprehension Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin) that she reaches her full potential and blossoms into a curious and exciting new woman who leaves her old life behind and moves to Paris. She is a modern-day Cinderella and she needed her Prince Charming to be able to transform from the simple girl that let people walk all over her into a woman that does what she wants. She needed the Prince to be able to escape from her simple-minded athlete of a boyfriend and a family that was keeping her stuck in her unexciting hometown. So, despite the all-women crew that worked behind the camera and despite the novel being written by a woman as well, this movie ends up being just another story where a woman needs a man to succeed in life.
At least they do not get their happily ever after, something that I thought would somehow save this insufferable tearjerker. However, it turned out that even his death could not have saved the film. I do believe that euthanasia should be a possible option for all people who are not able to end their own life – however, this is a very complex matter and a very hard choice to make for each individual; something that the film does not emphasize at all. For Will living is not an option, not ever. I would have expected this decision being approached to more delicately, as I would also preferred the film to focus on his decision-making process and not only on the furious reactions of people around him, unable to accept his (selfish, at least from the film’s point of view) decision. We do not get to know him well enough to know what exactly is it that makes his life so insufferable – is it the awful feeling of being a burden to the people around him? Or is it really just because he cannot return to Paris for his ego cannot handle Parisian women not turning around anymore when he would pass them on the sidewalk? Because he cannot go skiing in the Swiss Alps anymore? Or go sky-diving? And jumping off a cliff? Because if so, this is a shitty reason; he has done and seen more things in his 20+ years than most people will ever do in their lifetime. And they do not seem to commit suicide over that. The bottom line is therefore this: His reasons for not wanting to live anymore seemed superficial and ultimately disrespectful to all disabled people who deserved a better portrayal as well as a more meaningful contribution to the conversations and dilemmas about euthanasia and assisted death.
Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Written by: Jojo Moyes (based on her novel)
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis
Running Time: 110 minutes
The scene opens with Patricia Rozema’s camera taking a mystical walk through the woods and Cat Power’s mesmerizing voice singing Wild is the Wind, before stopping at a secluded family house situated on the edge of the forest – a house that despite its physical closeness seems to be extremely far from the nature that surrounds it. The family consists of two daughters, Eva and Nell (played by Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page) and their widowed father, all of whom seem to be living in a near future that all too much resembles the world that we already live in. Disconnected from the world and nature around and all too dependable on the technology that is micromanaging every aspect of our personal, social and professional lives – this is the future that has already happened, with futuristically designed technology being the only indicator of the film being set in a period that is yet to happen. Each of them seems to be pursuing their own thing, chasing their own dreams and trying to make the bright future ahead of them (they are living a privileged middle-class life after all) a reality, with Eva trying to make it as a professional dancer and Nell focusing on her education, possibly wishing to pursue her studies in an academic sphere. They know exactly what they need to do, how hard they need to work for it and what reward is awaiting for them in the end. That is until the power suddenly goes out nationwide in what is at first interpreted as a terrorist attack – only that the loss of power does not end up being a simple inconvenience that would last for a few days. Days instead turn into weeks and weeks into months.
When their father loses his life in an unfortunate accident and it starts to become clearer that life with electricity is the thing of the past, girls find themselves completely alone and entirely dependable on themselves – instead of on the patriarchal order that the father (and later, briefly, Nell’s boyfriend) represented so far. However, they (understandably) find it hard to switch their mindset to the new reality in which everything that was once an important part of their everyday life suddenly does not exist anymore and the expression “fugue state” that Nell is learning for her upcoming SAT’s before the power outage, starts to get a life of its own since the girls seem to be unable to let their old, comfortable and privileged lives go. Nell keeps on studying for the exams as if she is still about to finish high school and pursue her education at one of the Universities that she applied to, and Eva practices her dance routine, accompanied by nothing else but the frustrating sound of a metronome, as if the upcoming audition and a professional dance career is still something that will somehow happen.
They’re clearly in denial and they seem determined to keep on living their life as they did before, no matter how much the reality around them has changed. And while they slowly adapt to certain changes, learn to gather food in the forest and chop wood, they somehow still cannot fully acknowledge the permanence of their situation – which, considering how very different persons they are, culminates in quite a few sisterly disputes. It’s not until Nell temporarily leaves, although merely to pick blueberries in the woods, while Eva (alone and unable to defend herself) gets brutally raped (in what is one of the most devastating and powerful scenes in the film) that the two realize just how very important it is for them to stick together and how, no matter how strong and independent they otherwise are, they are completely helpless without one another.
It is only after the rape and Eva’s realization that she got pregnant during it that the fugue state slowly starts to dissolve – but it’s not until she actually gives birth that they fully accept their new reality and find the strength to not only leave, but destroy the life that they once lived (at least what has left of it).
Of course we are all too familiar with dystopian stories that focus on how the end of the world would affect our society as a whole. And it is in this aspect that Into the Forest manages to be a refreshing variation of those all-too-frequent macro-societal dystopian futures. Rozema surprisingly barely mentions the crisis that is going on in the city nearby (and elsewhere throughout the country) – instead, it focuses entirely on these two girls, on two particular individuals trying their best to learn to survive after the world as they knew it suddenly stops existing. But while I admire her intention of analysing how such crisis affects people on a micro level, the characters at times do not feel developed enough for us to contently spend an hour and a half in their company. We hardly learn anything about Eva and Nell that would make us see them as real persons – for which I blame a somewhat clumsily written screenplay (adapted for screen by Rozema herself) that doesn’t manage to portray the sister’s dynamic as well as it could have, despite Wood and Page giving fantastic performances and managing to carry the film forward even when they do not have much to work with.
Directed by: Patricia Rozema
Written by: Patricia Rozema (based on a novel by Jean Hegland)
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Rennie
Running Time: 101 minutes
Michael Haneke is without a doubt one of the most recognized and critically successful contemporary European auteurs. His films are challenging and often unpleasant to watch, but at the same time admirable and unforgettable, for he delves into painfully honest presentations of our society’s anxieties and uncertainties; something that very few directors have ever dared to do. As Janina Falkowska points out, “Haneke leaves no hope in his films, but throws the spectator into a state of despair and pain.” (Falkowska, 2007) The Piano Teacher, a literary adaptation of Elfride Jelinek’s 1984 novel of the same name, is one of his least typical films, for it is also his only film based on a pre-existing material. However, it is also a film that gained him an international recognition and that has perplexed, as well as inspired, many film critics and psychoanalysts since its release. Many of them decided to delve deep into the narrative and aesthetics of the film, trying to figure out the puzzling, at times also quite revolting main character, while also trying to find the answer to the ambiguous and confusing ending. Since Haneke continuously refuses to talk about his film’s interpretations, we can never know for sure what certain details and shocking open endings are supposed to mean. What we do know, however, is that Haneke intentionally tries to lure us into “a self-reflexive voyeurism to rape the spectator into autonomy and awareness”. (Landwehr, 2011) This raping of the audience into being reflexive and intellectually independent in some disturbing way very much resonates with one of the last and indeed the most uncomfortable scenes in The Piano Teacher – but let’s first focus on the beginning where Haneke in one short scene manages to establish exactly what film we are about to witness. The film opens with Erika Kohut, a middle-aged piano teacher at a music conservatory in Vienna, entering a cramped, overly-furnished and somehow claustrophobic apartment that she shares with her ever-present, over-controlling, suffocating mother. The whole sequence is filmed in a close-up or a medium shot; something that makes us even more aware of Erika’s spatial (as well as emotional and developmental) entrapment by her mother who clearly sees Erika as an extension of her own body. She immediately insists on knowing why Erika (whom she greets with “Good evening, child”) is late, for her last piano lecture ended hours ago. Erika, clearly annoyed by her mother’s nosiness but at the same time unable to stand up for herself and set up the boundaries between the two, tries to explain that she went for a walk after spending “eight hours in a cage” – the cage being the musical room where she teaches, if not simply her whole life: her work place, as well as the apartment where she lives, since both those places are under her mother’s constant surveillance. The mother, clearly not convinced by her answer, responds by pulling Erika’s purse out of her hands, turning it inside out, with which the dynamic of their pathological, destructive relationship is fully displayed to the viewers, making us aware of the fact that the purse is meant to be a symbolic representation of both Erika’s personal life, as well as of her physical body in general, for the mother’s examining of the purse’s content implies that Erika is allowed no private internal space.This is further implied when Erika enters the bathroom, the one place in an apartment where most of us expect to have some privacy: while momentarily being physically distanced from the mother while she is brushing her teeth, the mother’s voice, communicating a set of demands on how Erika should earn more money, still penetrates into the room, stealing the last bit of Erika’s privacy (this scene is later paralleled by another bathroom scene where Erika is cutting her genitals while the mother’s voice, this time calling her to dinner, once again penetrates into the room, disrupting her in the midst of her disturbing self-mutilation). By the mother-daughter dyadic duo always being shot closely together, Haneke’s camera is implying that there is no empty space between them: that they are one and the same, since the mother seems unable to break the maternal bond with her child. By thinking of Erika’s body as an extension of her own she is preventing Erika, whose masochistic and sadistic acts should be read as an attempt of her breaking free from the mother whom she still perceives as being a part of her, to fully step into the world of the symbolic order. Their pathological connectedness is further depicted in the scene where they get ready for bed – for what this scene reveals is that they sleep together in the master bedroom where Erika clearly replaced the role of her absent father. “Their pathological, hostile-dependent relationship results in Erika’s defensive identification with the male who has the power to possess and dominate the mother”. (Wyatt 2005) This identification at one point goes as far as Erika actually kissing and attempting to sexually assault the mother. She also seems to identify with the male audience while watching pornography in a booth of a sex shop where she often spends time after work – however, as Slavoj Žižek notes in Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, her looking at porn is not to get aroused, for she is looking at the pictures as a pupil who is trying to learn and consequently builds her sexual fantasies based on what she sees in these films.
Lacan’s psychoanalysis recognizes the “maternal desire as the crucial factor that forces a child to separate from its early fused identification with mother” (Wyatt 2005: 458). Because only when the child realizes that the mother lacks something, which makes her direct a part of her desire elsewhere, is the child “forced to recognize that he/she is a split and lacking subject” (Homer 2005) and to realize that he/she is “not mother’s immediate and sole object, which opens up the field of others beyond the mother-child dyad and thus the possibility for other objects”. (Wyatt 2005: 458) However, Erika cannot establish her desire for there is no maternal desire which would pressure her into recognizing her lack. This is represented in a scene taking place during a private musical recital where a man is trying to get the mother’s attention by showing her his antique collection of musical instruments, only to get a complete disinterest as a response. She who, just as Erika, seems to possess nothing other but jouissance, seems incapable of directing her attention to anything outside of Erika, who is at that time talking to her future student and lover Walter. What thus seems to be at the core of The Piano Teacher is the portrayal of both the mother’s and Erika’s jouissance, which is a Lacanian term for an “expression of drive energy, erotic and/or aggressive, that exceeds the limits of social rule and restraint and goes beyond pleasure, even beyond self-preservation” (Wyatt 2005: 453), making it closely associated with Freud’s death drive and the real.
Kristeva, who mostly followed Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, made some variations when it came to Lacan’s model of psychosexual development. What seems to be one of her most important attributions is her introduction of a term “abjection”, with which she describes something that “does not respect borders, positions and rules, which disturbs identity, system and order”. (Creed: 68) As it happens, “one of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes an abject at the moment when the child rejects her for the father who represents the symbolic order.” (Kristeva in Creed: 68) Since Erika’s father has been absent for her entire childhood, she was never able to establish herself as a symbolic subject based on lack and emerging as a subject of desire, which resulted in her pathological attachment to the mother who is using her “as the object that completes her”. (Wyatt 2005) Kristeva posits the stage associated with the abject in a pre-linguistic (and with that, pre-mirror) stage in which “a child is beginning to establish a separation between him/herself and the maternal, creating boundaries between self and other”. Erika and her mother are clearly unable to realize this separation that would let Erika to grow up and perceive herself as her own, differentiated individual, which results in Erika’s entrapment in this mother-daughter dyad from which there is seemingly no possible escape. As Kristeva explains, “all individuals experience abjection at the time of their earliest attempts to break away from the mother; when they struggle to break free – and it is in this attempt to break away that the mother becomes an abject”. (Kristeva in Creed: 72) It is with this in mind that we should interpret Erika’s vomiting, urinating and (usually self-inflicted) bleeding, for she is trying to eject the maternal Other out of her body; something that is most notably presented in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes of her slicing her genitals with a razor-blade, as if she is trying to establish “a minimal degree of distinction from the mother at the level of the body, as if she experiences her mother’s over-proximity as a corporeal fusion that requires a separation between skin and skin, flesh and flesh.” (Wyatt 2005) Her genital mutilation can thus be seen as “an attempt at removal from the mother, especially if read as a symbolic triggering of menstruation, implying maturation from girlhood to womanhood”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) When later joining her mother in the dining room, with her blood still dripping down her leg, her mother’s initial reaction, thinking its Erika’s menstrual blood, is repulsion: her announcement of how unappetizing Erika’s blood is “reveals her unease with this supposed sign of her daughter’s sexual maturity.” (Restuccia 2012: 64)
This is far from being the only time where the cutting occurs – the film seems to be saturated with it. After finding an elegant, but rather expensive frock while examining her daughter’s purse, the mother asserts to Erika: “I should cut off your hands”. Soon after we are introduced to the opening credits, seeing different hands practising a piano in conservatory’s music room: hands that are cut off from the body by the director, reminding us both of the mother’s vicious comment in an earlier scene, as well as of the fact that Erika does not perceive her pupils as whole human beings. This is later even more loudly echoed by her student’s mother who, after Erika puts glass in her student’s coat, permanently damaging her hand and quite possibly ruining her future as a pianist, comments that “whoever cut her daughter’s hands should have his hands chopped off”. Erika’s cutting of her student’s hands might be taken as vicarious fulfilment of the threat/wish of her own mother toward her, but given her student’s position of submission to maternal pressure and control, “Erika’s cruel act could also be read as offering a long, if not final, benevolent respite to her student Ana from her mother’s overbearing influence”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) Since Ana is supposed to represent a younger version of Erika (hence also a parallel of Ana’s domineering mother to Erika’s own), it is quite possible that Erika’s horrendous act at some level represented her trying to free Ana from the same miserable future of a pianist, since pursuing musical career is clearly more of a mother’s wish than of Ana herself. This why she is giving her an opportunity of freeing herself from the mother’s influence and finding something that she herself desires to do in life.
In the suffocating dyad, in which there is no room for mother’s desire and consequently also no possibility for Erika’s desire, it is quite apparent from the very beginning that Walter’s sudden presence will have a disastrous consequence for Erika whose life soon begins to spiral even more drastically towards self-destruction. His intrusion in their relationship is visually established during their first encounter, when Erika shuts the elevator doors before he could enter, closing herself and her mother into the small, cage-like elevator room that is perfectly portraying their claustrophobic, isolated reality based in the real – while Walter, on the other hand, represents an outside (symbolic) world of lack and desire. It is not until Erika hears him play that she becomes intrigued by the young man (something that is communicated to the audience by the mere twitch in her upper lip while the camera zooms in an extreme close-up of her face during the piano recital). And since the feeling seems to be mutual, for he is equally fascinated by her musical talent and intelligence, he soon starts to attend the conservatory in an attempt to seduce her. Walter, being young and fairly self-absorbed, is therefore completely clueless about her emotional immaturity and sexual perversion that hides below the façade of her intimidating strictness and perfectionism; traits that he somehow finds fascinating and desirable.
Her perversion expresses itself “as a need to control the phallus” (Wyatt 2005) – something that is portrayed in Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter in the conservatory’s bathroom, where they seem to be battling over who will take control over the situation. The sexual dynamic seems to be somehow similar to that of film noir, with “Erika embodying a femme fatale who tries to seduce the representative of masculine identity into her world of destructive sexuality – a sexual immersion that would dissolve his masculinity by depriving him of the autonomy, mastery and phallic control that constitute its core”. (Wyatt 2005) After the initial battle for control, where the whole sexual encounter is entirely off-screen, invisible to us, the voyeurs, who are left in a painfully long one-take shot of Walter’s face filled with pain and agony, Walter still believes that their relationship is bound to progress. And it is not until Erika writes him a letter in which she explains what she wants from their relationship, that he gets a glimpse of her perversion – although it can be said that he does not quite understand what she is trying to communicate, as we can see from the numerous questions that he poses and that she lefts unanswered; a scene that once again establishes her not living fully in a world of symbolic order, for she is obviously using a language, but is unable to communicate with another person, of engaging in a dialogue. Walter, not understanding what it is she wants from him, and as a representative of a bourgeois society a part of which they both are, is visibly repulsed by her and in a burst of disbelief and anger suggests that she should get some help. When he later re-enacts her letter after breaking into her apartment overcome by rage, he fulfils her sexual fantasy that at first so much repulsed him and, as Žižek points out, “gives her an opportunity to transform herself. Erika’s blankness during the rape, her corpse-like position and ashen facial expression only enhance the point that she is entering absence, an abyss, an empty psychic space that will enable her to configure herself”. (Žižek in Restuccia 2012: 68)
The final act of her cutting, as she stabs herself right above the heart at the entrance hall of the conservatory where she is about to perform at the musical recital, closes this film’s narrative. This can be read as one last, and quite possibly her only successful attempt at breaking free from her mother. As wounded Erika decides to walk out of the conservatory and onto the busy street full of anonymous car drivers unaware of her injury, the camera finally zooms away from the medium close-up shot. The space around her is opening up and we can indeed interpret the ending as her walking towards her newly-established freedom. “The former submissive Erika is now dead, her fundamental melancholic fantasy gluing her to the demanding mother traversed.” (Restuccia 2012: 68) The wound and its blood that cover up her beige coat could thus signify her finally ejecting her mother, as well as her menstrual blood, finally transforming her from an infant, undifferentiated from her mother, to an independent woman, free of the suffocating mother-daughter bond.
This was originally written for my Psychoanalysis of Film class at Anglo-American University in Prague.
List of references:
- Creed, Barbara: The Monstrous Feminine
- Falkowska, Janina (2007): Michael Haneke, Mourning and Melancholia in European Cinema
- Homer, Sean (2005): Jeaques Lacan
- Kristeva, Julia: Modules on Kristeva – The Abject
- Landwehr, Margarete Johanna (2011): Voyeurism, Violence and the Power of the Media: The Reader’s/Spectator’s Complicity in Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher and Haneke’s La Pianiste, Cache, The White Ribbon
- Restuccia, Frances (2012): The Blue Box – Kristevan/Lacanian Readings of Contemporary Cinema
- Wyatt, Jean (2005): Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher