The Rape of Erika’s Sexual Identity in Michael Haneke’s ‘La Pianiste’

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Erika’s personality and behaviour are split and operate between three extremes. Predominantly she impersonates a harsh, strict and perfectionistic piano teacher who knows her limits, her rules and her position in contrast to others, mainly her students. The resulting two other facets of her depict her as a sexually revelatory submissive, in opposition to her dominant attitude in her professional life, and as a misunderstood, used, misused and abused woman.

Erika can be compared to Esther from Marina de Van’s film Dans ma peau. Esther discovers her sexual and sensual self through numbness, pain and self-absorbed hunger whereas Erika seems to always have been theoretically aware of her sterilised and mute desires and contrarious to reality fantasies, but as Haneke stated in an interview: ‘she hides behind perfectionism’. The only way in which Esther conforms herself is that she inflicts her wounds when she is isolated, hidden and literally cut off from society’s depreciative and condemning eye, for the rest she lives out what her body and mind urge her to do, a stabbing and eating that no one dares to understand, tolerate or relate to. What is unfamiliar and other for society becomes a familiar untamed self for Esther.

When it comes to Erika the power relations become very tricky. She is trapped in a dependent, obsessive and perverted relationship and apartment with her mother who seems to embody an older foreshadowing version of Erika herself. Her sphere of sexually deviating expression is suffocated by her mother’s attentive eye, her mother wants to see and hear what she wants to see and hear, nothing more, nothing less. Their companionship is fuelled by disgust, rejection and violence as they both think that one needs the other to survive, one feeds off the other, inseparable although they both are ready to ‘cut’ at any time.

Esther vanishes into her proper impenetrable awakened self where no one can follow her as no one can ‘feel’ the way to herself. Her boyfriend excludes himself from this incompatibility and unattainability or maybe he is excluded since the beginning of the introspective ecstasy. Esther’s identity and actions are confronted to shocks, misunderstanding and repulsed judgement. When it comes to Erika, however, she seems to condense and silence her needs by not acting them out, although she nourishes her imagination and thereby fantasises a lot, but then unleashes her passion through the medium of music, she may be moaning but what people hear would be music, it is her passion in disguise, her source of inspirational transmittance. Due to the fact that Walter unmasks her and identifies her attraction to him she thinks that she is safe, that she has found a worthy counterpart to rely upon and trust him when it comes to her true cravings.

The woman who always restrained and adapted her role-playing female sexuality to society’s norms, conditions and limitations now finds the courage to express her wishes. She puts them on paper like a desperately longing wish list, hoping to find resonance in the reader. For the first time she dares to write down and strip herself of her imposed shamefulness, it is the first time that she is shameless because there is no need to feel ashamed, but quickly her ‘lover’ cannot follow her, misinterprets her, mocks her, humiliates her, fails her, disrespects her, stigmatising her as something wrong, something mad, something utterly disturbed and dysfunctional, something abnormal that one cannot get used to, which is the same reaction of her mother. After all these hidden and suppressed years of guilt and shame it takes one moment of shamelessness to ‘accuse’ Erika of wicked shamelessness, promiscuity and repulsiveness. She for once dares to crawl out of her frustrated sphere, gets shut down, discriminated and sent back to her physically ascetic respected status.

Erika’s fantasies are perfected in her mind, in such a way that they do not hurt, that they fulfil her, as she invents them, creates, forms and controls them, but they would physically involve another person and then it gets tricky. Her fantasies are misunderstood and abused, adjusted to predetermined misleading associations provoking an emotional power-related outburst and a complete lack of control when it comes to Walter. Erika confuses her musical relation with the sexual relation with Walter, she cannot control him according to her will and rules only. Contrarious to her dreams, he does not react as she imagined it, she cannot ‘play’ him, here is an ‘instrument’ she fails to tame, here is a beautiful façade taking her over. She cannot master Walter and falls into a begging self-sacrificing submissive role where he scars her icy character. That Walter’s mistreating behaviour and misunderstanding actions do not coincide with her fantasies is mostly demonstrated in the scene where he performs a wish of hers by penetrating her mouth with his sex, but she vomits, she spits ‘him’ out, a revolt, a disgust, a misconception, a disappointment, a misapprehension that deeply vexes his ego and his manhood, challenging his takeover of power and fuelling his aggression towards her, the supposedly stronger sex spat out by the supposedly weaker sex, rejecting him, expulsing him.

This is a sphere where he is pushed against his limits and feels free to overpower her completely. He acts out the scenario she revealed to him, abusing her words, pretending to realise her wishes by disbelievingly saying so and depreciatively quoting her, thereby justifying the ‘corrective’ revenge rape, taking back his predestined role in gender hierarchies and performances, reinstating his disturbing concept of manhood and dominance, perverting her dreams and everything they stand for, turning them into an act of cruelty, of crime, of one-sided pleasure, destroying the essence of them and of her. He abused her fantasies in order to justify the rape which makes it even crueller, as she ‘asked for it’ in the letter, thereby overstepping the small but undeniably crucial difference between a consensual sadomasochistic role-play and a rape.

He robs her of her art, her desires, her sexuality and her music as everything was one and the same, in her head, with her instrument she was safe, deteriorating in self-destruction and in her case a non-fulfilling self-mutilation, as an act of expression, of despair, of a final obviousness and rigorousness, refusing to give her concert, give her away, herself in front of a caging audience, the knife stabbed through her flesh, a symbol of rape laid bare, another reminding wound, but this time inflicted by herself, which again when one thinks of Esther, changes everything.

woman lying her head on piano
Photo by Marcela Alessandra on Pexels.com

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