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American Imago 62.4 (2006) 453-482

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Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher

Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies
Occidental College
Los Angeles, CA 90041

Where, psychologically, can we locate Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (France/Austria 2001)? Despite moments in which it appears that we are following traces of feminine desire, I suggest that the film plunges us into a space of maternal jouissance. Since my interpretation of the film hinges on the distinction between desire and jouissance, I begin with a brief exposition of these Lacanian concepts—one that is necessarily provisional and that the essay as a whole will fill out. In the Lacanian lexicon, desire is created by the lack that founds the subject as a member of the social/symbolic order. Once called into existence, desire propels the subject toward the social world, in a never-ending search for a person or object to fill that foundational gap in being. Desire exists within the parameters of social law: as a product of the instinctual renunciation demanded by the social contract, desire finds its origin and its limits in the social order. The hallmark of jouissance, on the contrary, is excess: it is an expression of drive energy—erotic and/or aggressive—that exceeds the limits of social rule and restraint, that goes beyond a rational calculus of the subject's interests, beyond pleasure, even beyond self-preservation. I contend that Erika (Isabelle Huppert), the piano teacher in Haneke's film, lives in a world of maternal jouissance: her mother (Annie Girardot) operates as if there were no law or limit regulating a mother's possession of her child and her rights to that child's body and will. Although Erika is in her late thirties, her mother continues to [End Page 453] invade every corner of Erika's space and controls (or tries to control) her every move.

In the rare moments when she is not supervised by her mother or giving piano lessons at the Vienna Conservatory, Erika engages in a series of masochistic, sadistic, even incestuous actions. While at first blush these self-destructive expressions of jouissance seem to have nothing to do with her mother, I maintain that they constitute strategies for breaking the maternal bond. The unrelenting proximity of her mother blocks Erika's access to the symbolic order and thus to the ordinary escapes from maternal closeness described by psychoanalysis. So Erika resorts to strategies located in the real in order to separate.1 Arguably, her erotic transgressions are self-defeating, since, employing as they do the modalities of jouissance, they return her to the territory of jouissance she inhabits with her mother rather than opening a path into a different world. Nonetheless, her violent acts on (or against) her own body seem calculated to introduce a minimum of distinction and difference between herself and a mother experienced as so close as to be within the confines of Erika's own body.

For the film represents not only Erika's relation to a mother unbearably close in the external reality of her daily life, but also Erika's relation to an inner maternal object. And it is Erika's repeated attempts to eject that uncomfortable object within that is most unsettling to viewers, I will argue. What we see represented, in the amorphous, indeterminate bodily substances produced by Erika's various self-piercings and expulsions, is what usually escapes representation: the phantom remnant of the other at the heart of the self, the internal alterity that constitutes the core of the subject.

If watching the film is so "disturbing"—and that is the word that viewers use, with surprising uniformity, to describe it—then why would someone continue to watch it, let alone identify with Erika's position? The answer lies in part in the allure of a familiar fantasy structure: at odds with Erika's private moments of jouissance is a love plot driven by desire. Erika, who is a piano instructor at the Vienna Conservatory, meets Walter...


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