Even Van Wilder wouldn’t know what to make of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a single, fortysomething piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. Erika lives with her mother (Annie Girardot), treats her students like slaves, visits sex shops, watches porn, hides bondage toys in her boudoir, mutilates her vagina with a razor and spies on couples having sex at drive-ins. When a hunkish student, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), follows Erika into a restroom, he gets more than he bargained for. Later, she writes him a letter that sets the terms for sex. The upshot is: Bite me, kick me, punch me, sit on my face, and let me put my tongue up your ass. Walter is appalled. Erika may sound like a submissive woman, but she wants to call the shots.
Which is, of course, the point of the film that writer-director Michael Haneke (Code Unknown) has made from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel. Jelinek writes fiercely about sexual politics, about female music teachers being forced to serve the gods of high culture, about the consequences of what she calls “a phallic woman” who co-opts the male right to control. Watching Haneke’s film is, aptly enough, a challenge and a punishment. But watching Huppert, a great actress tearing into a landmark role, is riveting.