(NR) 4 stars

Despite taking three top prizes at Cannes last year (Best Actress, Best Actor and Grand Jury Prize), The Piano Teacher is not a film meant to be enjoyed, or even particularly liked. It is meant to push boundaries and challenge viewers, and does so masterfully for all of its 130 minutes.

The Piano Teacher stars legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a middle-aged professor at an exclusive Vienna conservatory. At first glance, she appears a stereotypical, sexless music teacher in her frumpy raincoat and mousy clothes. By day, she delivers withering critiques of her cowed piano students; by night, she still shares a bedroom and a bank account with her domineering elderly mother. But Erika"s true nature soon becomes evident in a comic scene where she visits a porn shop to watch hardcore porn flicks and sniff used tissues left behind in the booth.

Kohut plays a recital at which she meets a charming young man named Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) who becomes infatuated with the older woman, and passes a rigorous examination in order to become her student at the conservatory. Teacher and student share both a passion for Schubert and an undeniable physical attraction, and quickly begin what is to become a very strange affair in the school"s bathroom. After their first sexual encounter, Erika sends Walter a letter in which she outlines her sadomasochistic fantasies.

Initially repulsed by her desires, the fresh-faced Walter eventually becomes as obsessed with Erika as she is with him, and finally acquiesces to her demands, though not in the ways she anticipated. Austrian director Michael Haneke presents an unorthodox version of the student-teacher courtship in which the student is just as complicit as the instructor, eliciting smoldering performances from both Huppert and Magimel. And though Haneke has managed to infuse the entire film with erotic tension, the few actual instances of sex take place with both Erika and Walter nearly fully clothed. (Which is not to say there aren"t several rather explicit scenes involving self-mutilation, emotional and physical violence and a fair amount of blood.) Throughout, however, The Piano Teacher focuses on characters rather than spectacle, right up to its purposefully unsatisfying ending.

The Piano Teacher is not a film for everyone, least of all the prudish or the faint of heart. It is profoundly unsettling to see the darkest human impulses and emotions played out so matter-of-factly on screen. But if you"re tired of falling asleep during the featherweight fare Hollywood is currently passing off, The Piano Teacher may be a film for you.

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