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The Importance

Fortyish Erika Kohut, an unmarried piano instructor at a Vienna music academy, shares a small apartment and even a bed with her domineering mother. A stern, exacting teacher, Erika reduces her students to tears while gazing distractedly from her classroom window. We follow this solitary, embittered woman as she executes her duties—auditioning prospective pupils, performing in recitals—and assume that she is narrowly devoted to her art. Then Erika throws us a curve: She casually strolls into a sex shop, enters a peep-show booth, and coolly watches hard-core porn while sniffing semen from tissues discarded by male patrons.

Classical music, repressed sexuality, and sadomasochism fuse in German-born director Michael Haneke’s grim The Piano Teacher, which he adapted from a novel by Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek. Like Jeanne Moreau’s rural schoolteacher in Tony Richardson’s film of Jean Genet’s Mademoiselle, Erika, driven by sexual frustration, commits acts of psychological and physical aggression against others and herself. (Fainthearted moviegoers will want to avert their eyes from the sequence in which she methodically slits her vagina with a razor blade.) Uncompromising in her musical standards and autocratic in her pedagogical methods, Erika secretly yearns to be physically and emotionally dominated. Her precarious self-control explodes when she attracts the attention of Walter Klemmer, a handsome young man determined to study with her. After a seduction in a public bathroom, she presents him with a handwritten list of sexual fantasies, including bondage and rape, which she insists he agree to act out with her. Although briefly swept up in her erotic hysteria, he subsequently withdraws, precipitating a bloody denouement.

Isabelle Huppert, for three decades the great stone face of French cinema, plays Erika. With her masklike visage—cold eyes, tight lips, severely pulled-back hair—Huppert intriguingly cloaks her character’s inner turmoil, and when she betrays the merest flicker of emotion, the result feels cataclysmic. As Walter, Benoit Magimel convincingly struggles to comprehend and fulfill the roles that Erika assigns him, among them boy toy, paramour, and master. Erstwhile French leading lady Annie Giradot, cruelly ravaged by time, portrays Erika’s harpy mother, whose obsessive control has apparently driven her husband to madness and warped her daughter’s psyche.

Haneke’s restrained visual style—muted colors, rigorous compositions—counterbalances the film’s lurid, often shocking content, which includes depictions of urination, vomiting, and sexual violation. But as Erika’s composure crumbles, his film becomes more risible than repellent. The scene in which Walter imprisons the shrieking mother in a closet while playing kinky games in the daughter’s sex-toy-strewn study is nearly farcical, and the concert-hall climax, staged as a Hitchcockian suspense set piece, is too neatly contrived to resolve the protagonist’s irreconcilable dilemma.

No doubt viewers who share Erika’s Sadean identification of pleasure with debasement will find The Piano Teacher compelling, and some doctrinaire feminists will embrace the film’s assumption that Erika’s psychosis stems from her determination to assert her will in a patriarchal culture. But the rest of us are more likely to wish that Erika’s case had been referred to a therapist rather than depicted in an intermittently artful but ultimately unconvincing movie.

In 1999, English writer-director Oliver Parker made a botch of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband by cravenly soft-pedaling the play’s espousal of male dominance and permitting Minnie Driver to give an atrociously gauche performance. Now he’s made an even bigger mess of Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, the English theater’s most elegantly crafted drawing-room comedy.

Five decades ago, Anthony Asquith directed what remains the definitive screen adaptation of this play, with an extraordinary cast headed by Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Margaret Rutherford, and Joan Greenwood. Contemporary reviewers praised Asquith’s film with the caveat that it was excessively stagebound, a criticism that Parker unfortunately took to heart in contriving his maladroit remake. Venturing far from Wilde’s sitting rooms and gardens, he floods the movie with distractions—teeming London streets, posh men’s clubs, music halls, graveyards, fields of heather, Pre-Raphaelite fantasy sequences, a tattoo parlor, and even a flight in a hot-air balloon. To accommodate these irrelevant scenic diversions, he’s pruned some of Wilde’s wittiest dialogue and compromised the play’s ingenious geometric structure.

Parker compounds the damage by casting unsuitable actors in key roles. Square-jawed Colin Firth is excessively stolid as Jack Worthing, a respectable country bachelor who invents an imaginary brother, Ernest, as an excuse to enjoy roguish gambols in London. Pasty Rupert Everett is more ghoulish than rakish as Jack’s indolent, impoverished urban chum, Algernon Moncrieff.

The female members of the ensemble are more vibrant, though Frances O’Connor is pallid and rather prunish as Jack’s adoring fiancee, Gwendolen Fairfax. Diminutive Judi Dench as the formidable Lady Bracknell doesn’t dispel the memory of Edith Evans’ celebrated performance, but she commands the scenes in which she appears—a rather remarkable accomplishment given the elephantine costumes that encase her. The movie’s liveliest moments are contributed by chinless Anna Massey as the rattled governess, Miss Prism, and by Reese Witherspoon as Jack’s bubbly ward, Cecily Cardew. Anyone who doubted that Legally Blonde’s brainy bimbo could carry off a classic ingenue role surrounded by English actors is in for a big surprise. Adventurous and versatile, Witherspoon, should she set her mind to it, could probably break our hearts as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“Ignorance,” Lady Bracknell observes, in one of Wilde’s most memorable epigrams, “is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” And Parker’s pristinely obtuse movie is about as tempting as a bowl of overripe kumquats. CP