My favourite female character on film is Erika Kohut in Michael Haneke‘s La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001). For anyone who has seen the film, adapted from the book by Elfriede Jelinek, it might strike as an unusual choice, maybe too far-fetched for positioning it as a favourite? It bewilders me too, but ever since I have seen Michael Haneke’s film, I cannot think of any other female character who has had such a solid impact on my consciousness.
Isabelle Huppert is a French cinema icon, and the power with which she inhabited the troubled piano teacher is matchless. I cannot imagine any other actor who could have played Erika Kohut. In her career spanning more than four decades, Huppert has played countless standout characters, but none can come close to what she has achieved as Erika Kohut. Her gaze itself – frozen and cold, pointed directly at the screen at various moments – will remain forever etched in my memory.
Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her mid forties who lives with her mother (Anne Girardot) and even shares the same bed. They have a fraught relationship: the film begins with them fighting and continues throughout – there is no private space that Kohut has for herself when she’s at home (except for the bathroom, where she commits self-harm). But what is most unconventional is Kohut’s sexuality. She visits porn cinemas, making men uncomfortable, and porn shows without telling her mother. When a young and handsome student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) threatens to break this chain in her life and proposes love, Kohut unravels. She presents herself as the one with power over him, and gives him a letter instructing him to follow her orders if he wants her – this includes masochistic sexual demands.
Huppert has a way with her face: the manner in which she can let her audience into her character just enough to peak into her troubled subconscious, but never get hold of her, is breathtaking. Erika Kohut unravels in front of our eyes – her animalistic howl in bed beside her mother, her submission to Walter in the dressing room after his match, and her silent cry when he flirts with another student. Huppert makes each of these scenes a series of painstaking events; when she is unable to shut the door on her emotions that have been so repressed within her, they flow out. Until then I had never seen such a depraved, hysterical character represented on screen with such terseness and serenity. Almost every troubled character we see has their vices underlined and exposed for the audience to pin down. Very few of such characters are women. Seldom do they tackle the need of sexuality.
“Simple,” Haneke had said about Huppert, when asked why he casts her repeatedly, “she can do everything.” That is exactly what can be said about Erika Kohut as well, I suppose. The extents to which she goes to project her insistence on Walter once he proposes to her are limitless. Although she says at the onset that even if her emotions get involved, it will never take precedence over her intelligence, her mask eventually unravels.
Demanding, cold and ruthless, Erika Kohut is unlike any other female character I’ve encountered onscreen. It is a performance that reminded me of everyday individuals I cross my daily paths with, capable of containing infernal possibilities within. It is a testimony to the towering presence of Huppert that she instilled in such a distant, questionable character such unforgettable force and power.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.