Though no scientist would quantify this with a straight face, I’m convinced that almost every person alive, male or female, gay or straight, black or white or yellow or blue, has had a crush on a schoolteacher. In grade school, it’s an embarrassing curiosity; in high school, a bragging fantasy. After the magical age of consent is reached, it gets a little thornier. The rules regarding the breach of that social contract between student and teacher are in place for a reason, but what do we make of two adults, comfortably past the age of control, who decide they want to put their mouths on each other? Must the power dynamic be so rigidly maintained and adhered to? Isn’t there something a little dangerous and alluring about being truly aware of all the ethical and social implications of such a relationship, and deciding to pursue it anyways?
Presumably, this is what Walter Klemmer thinks when he tells his piano teacher, Erika Kohut, that he’s infatuated with her after a brief, implied courtship that’s only been consummated through the slightest looks and pursed lips. “I neglected my studies for you,” he says with a slightly dopey look on his face. “It’s true!” But whatever he’s expecting is swiftly flipped upside when, hoping to play an illicit game of hide the salami in Kohut’s bedroom while her mother listens from outside the door (more on that in a second), he’s instead made to read the contents of a letter she’s written for him regarding the direction of their nascent relationship. For one, Kohut wants to be hit. She wants to be tied up, punched in the stomach, urinated on, forced to tongue his asshole, and plenty of other things to make any good Catholic say a Hail Mary. She watches him read this letter with the curious impassivity of a cat watching a mouse scurry across the room, and waits for his reaction. Of course, he’s disgusted, and tells her so. But marched to the edge of such a sexual jungle, Klemmer doesn’t retreat back to the safe comforts of a schoolgirl who’d like to grab a malt at the local ice cream shoppe and talk about bands. Rather, he heads into the thicket without really considering where he’s going.
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2001 (it’s considered the second most prestigious award behind the Palme d’Or), is a straightforward yet thrilling exploration of what the temptation of power and sexuality can do to seemingly normal people. On the surface, Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a piano teacher, eminently qualified and all business. But she harbors her own knotty neuroses, no doubt inspired by a living situation that would make any unemployed college graduate blanche and immediately head for the job wire. A middle-aged woman, she lives with her mother, a controlling (former?) piano teacher who tries to control her spending and goes nuclear whenever she’s late to return home without calling. Despite having separate bedrooms, they sleep in the same bed. (Paging Freud!) With such a regimented professional life (she spends her days teaching and attending recitals) and such a desolate personal life, her repressed desire for danger manifests itself in seemingly random ways. She goes to an adult video store and sits in a private booth, watching pornography and sniffing the used Kleenexes left behind by the enthusiastic male patrons. She spies on a couple having sex in the back of a car at a drive-in movie theater; turned on by such voyeurism, she ends up urinating just outside the door.
This is a complicated woman, one who tries to convince herself—and Klemmer—that she’s incapable of feeling emotions, and that he shouldn’t expect her to return any sort of affection past whatever’s needed for their sexual trysts. But despite the power she tries to hold over him, it doesn’t quite take; pushed to frustration by the most unreal case of blue balls, Klemmer responds to her demands more viciously than she was expecting. As is the case in these columns, I won’t say what happens. But the breakdown in motivation becomes more pronounced with every scene: First, this is a woman who knows what she wants but has no means to get it. When she has the means, she loses sight of her desire. Eventually, she’s left completely powerless, and is only capable of lashing out randomly and violently like a wounded animal. It’s harrowing to watch, and Huppert plays the role so close to her chest as to ingrain complete believability in her unbelievable actions. Haneke’s direction, which is as simple as a steady camera that often follows its subject without cutting away for a moment, does plenty to reinforce the reality of what’s going on.
I’m reminded of a movie that came out almost a decade later: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, about another sexually repressed prodigy who lives with her mother while teetering on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. I can’t know what Aronofsky’s Netflix queue looks like, but the parallels seem so pronounced that I’ve got to imagine he had this running in the background while he got his storyboards set up. If you were a fan of that one, then The Piano Teacher should land right in your comfort zone.
Bear with me, but a movie that pointedly high-brow can only be countered with the low: The Faculty, that gloriously campy ‘90s teen horror film that I’d actually never seen until it was pointed out by Netflix’s helpful indices. (I grew up in a self-imposed pop culture bubble, only punctured by Pokemon and Final Fantasy before I discovered the Internet.) Watching it now, it’s kind of amazing how many recognizable faces are in it: Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Usher, Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Salma Hayek, Danny Masterston, Jon Stewart, and even the guy who plays Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore. Such a cast would get plenty of attention today, and not simply because it would be hilarious to watch the host of The Daily Show play a biology teacher who gets his fingers cut off by a paper slicer. Instead, they’re all thrown into the mix with no regard for star power. The premise, if you don’t know, is about a high school where alien parasites take over the teachers, with plans to eventually sweep through the country. The teens are the only ones who figure this out, and set out to stop their devious plot.
In a movie that filled with goofiness, the goofiest thing about The Faculty is a neutered, PG version of the relationship between Klemmer and Kohut. It’s a courtship between Janssen, who plays a teacher, and Hartnett, who plays a super senior who should’ve graduated the year before. He flirts with her, and she’s uncomfortable. After getting infected by the alien parasites, she flirts with him and he’s uncomfortable. (Then her head gets cut off but somehow still survives while continuing to taunt him, which is just bizarre.) After everything’s resolved, she turns up to his football practice to cheer and wave from the stands, as though it isn’t completely weird for a teacher to play personal cheerleader to the high school quarterback. There’s a paper to be written by some erudite pop culture scholar about the ways in which ‘90s high school movies deviate from accepted reality, really.
But The Faculty is actually a tense horror movie, aided by its gory special effects and the fact that director Robert Rodriguez apparently decided to rip off John Carpenter’s The Thing for all it was worth. There’s a giddy scene in which our band of heroes, safely retreated from the school where many bad things are happening, force each other to snort a mixture of caffeine pills that will supposedly root out who’s infected and who isn’t. It’s identical to a moment in The Thing, where Kurt Russell tests everyone’s blood to see who’s been taken over by the alien horror. Like that scene, it ends with a shock that someone isn’t who they say they are, though it’s totally implausible how he/she would’ve gotten infected given how closely we’ve been following the action. But again, I’ll stop myself from nitpicking the plot holes; this is mostly just an excuse to laugh at a baby-faced Usher playing a football star, and to marvel at how schweeny Elijah Wood somehow ended up the biggest actor out of all. Make it the centerpiece of a drinking game and take a shot every time something silly happens. (Be careful to pace yourself.)