Feb 6, 2011

Does Schubert save you from sadomasochism?

"No one who had come close to Schubert's music (to pick just one composer) could lead the savagely compartmentalized life that Erika suffers. Therefore, she is a music teacher as a front. Therefore, she is very ill... and I am not quite sure that great acting and great reputation should be given to anything as unique (ie as rare in humanity) as such illness." — David Thomson, Have You Seen? (Knopf)
Even by David Thomson's standards, these are a mystifying sequence of sentences (from his book Have You Seen, which I've been enjoying, fitfully, since I was bought it for Christmas). First off is that stunning contention that nobody who listens to Schubert can lead the kind of compartmentalized life that the Isabelle Huppert character suffers, which is to say, teacher by day and sadomasochist by night. When did he write this book? 1900? One might argue, as Haneke seems to, that the frigid perfectionism of Huppert's world is precisely the breeding ground for the kind of sexual dysfunction she displays. Contrarily, I can hear the cry that sadomasochistic tendencies are no more frequent among the world of classical pianists than they are amongst, say, the firefighter population, or the ranks of biochemists. But to argue that they are less likely to be found amongst Schubert fans because they listen to Schubert, displays a hilariously antiquated faith in the normative effects of classical music. It's positively Leavisite, as if classical concerts and cold baths are the only thing standing between you and double-ended dildos. The backed-up reasoning that follows is like the stuttering of a man in denial: It cannot be that she likes both. The piano teaching has to be a front. She is ill. And because ill, she should not be portrayed on screen. As if genital self-mulilation were perfectly acceptable in a film if enacted by a healthy human being. I hate to break it to Mr Thomson, but his hunt for a healthy human being who just happens to be into labial self-laceration is going to be a long one.


  1. I'm a Professor of Classical Piano and I can confirm we are a weird lot...

    Seriously, I can't stand the view expressed in this guy's article, and very well critiqued in your own.
    It gives classical music - and musicians - a bad name. It's precisely this notion of superiority that has resulted in classical music becoming a dying art. Poor Schubert, even among professionals, only the the chosen few really 'understand' his music.
    This snobbery makes me cringe.

  2. Please don't let it put you off Thomson for good. He generally has good taste in movies. But he sometimes writes as if delivering the final line in a Tom Stoppard play, taking his bow before you can ask him what he meant exactly.

    I would be very interested to know what you think of the film. I found it transfixing

  3. Her passion for music, and the way its beauty only adds to her torment, is one of the saddest aspects of the film. I don't know if that is what is Thomson is saying. I never know what to do with these brick-wall paragraphs in his writing.

  4. Transfixed is the right word.
    I think her performance is absolutely incredible, and I remember being mesmerized by her psychological unraveling, almost feeling like a voyeur.
    Oddly, perhaps because it's what I do every day, the musical aspect of the film did not really leave me with as lasting an impression. Conversations during real lessons don't tend to reach such an esoteric level so quickly!
    Very few films pull off acted piano playing and the emotions felt when practicing/performing successfully; my personal favourite is The Beat My Heart Skipped, in which Romain Duris is extremely realistic. I believe he was coached by his sister, who is a pianist. It shows.

  5. That's interesting, Lidia. I did wonder about those tutorials. They sounded very literary in tone, with lots of attention paid to character and plot. And as per what The Siren says, it is a very sad film, a great love story I believe, but centred on someone who will never be able to give or receive love in a traditional sense or in a manner acceptable to 99% of the population. She feels love rather as a teenager feels it, in hideously powerful reserves just waiting to spring. Most of the great operatic emotions are a little teenage, I guess. I wonder if anyone has ever written that about the operas themselves.