La Pianiste: Michael Haneke’s Aesthetic of Disavowal
Michael Haneke’s controversial 2001 film La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) is a stark exploration of the psychopathology of fantasy. In this article, I will examine how Haneke’s approach to the film’s narrative and its representation of sexuality parallels the masochistic desires of its lead protagonist with the reflexive positioning of the spectator. I will explore how Haneke’s use of genre conventions, which in the case of La Pianiste are derived from romantic melodrama, encourage audience expectation and identification which are then denied by constructing a narrative that utilises modernist cinematic frameworks. Highlighting Haneke’s developing international reputation, La Pianiste is a largely French-funded and entirely French language production -even though it marked Haneke’s return to Austria where he had created several disturbing visions of contemporary moral putrefaction culminating in the success of reflexive suspense thriller Funny Games (Haneke, 1997) - and accordingly, I will examine the text with particular reference to French post-Freudian theory, including the work of Gilles Deleuze, whose essay Coldness and Cruelty (1967) significantly challenged traditional psychoanalytical notions of the role of fantasy in masochistic pleasure.
La Pianiste is based on Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 Vienna-set novel Die Klavierspielerin and is Haneke’s only adaptation of a literary source for the cinema (1). With its focus on the themes of fantasy and the construction of sexual identity, both the novel and film are unmistakably inflected by Fin de siècle Viennese discourses such as Freudian psychoanalysis and the thematically linked literature of the period typified by the works of Arthur Schnitzler. In fact, the film often seems like a gender subverted variation on Schnitzler’s classic novella Traumnovelle (1926), the main difference being that, unlike Fridolin (Schnitzler’s fantasist protagonist), Erika’s fantasies are realised - with disastrous results.
Throughout his oeuvre, Haneke has demonstrated an attraction to stories of psychogenic extremes; from the ritualised family suicide of The Seventh Continent (Haneke, 1989) to the National Socialist allegory of The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009). La Pianiste is no exception. This time, these extremities are embodied in the small, unassuming figure of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) (2), a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory whose masochistic fantasises are fuelled by the attentions of a precocious, handsome young student, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel). Infantilised by her mother (Annie Girardot) who insists on knowing her whereabouts at all times (they even share the same bed), Erika is portrayed throughout the film as a complex mix of sexual debasement and child-like naivety. She is the embodiment of a fundamental principle of Freudian psychoanalysis, that of the ‘Discord between the logic of the psychic apparatus and the demands of reality.’ (Zizek 1992: 54) Erika is unable to bridge the gap between the internal psychological and external somatic in order to synthesise into a new sexualised identity, and this disparity is mirrored by the spectator’s experience of Haneke’s masochistic text.
Erika as Masochist
Though Sigmund Freud believed that, ‘A sadist is always at the same time a masochist’ (Freud 1905: 73), in his lengthy essay Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze sought to differentiate the two concepts by a direct comparison of the transgressive literature of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade. Haneke’s film appears to adhere to a strictly Deleuzian model of masochism, which argues against the Freudian view that it is concomitant with sadism (3). That is not to say that there are not ostensible similarities in the formal staging of sadism and masochism, and the development of one ‘perversion’ is often the symptom, or ‘by-product’, of the other (Deleuze 1967: 40). This post-Freudian framework is crucial in identifying the role of fantasy in the construction of Erika’s masochistic sexual identity.
Deleuze believed that the masochist derives their pleasure from the persistent suspension of gratification and the disavowal of sensuality - though this disavowal is not to be confused with a complete negation of emotion. The masochist becomes cloaked by a supersensual sentimentality, an idealisation of eroticism that manifests itself as exterior coldness, as Deleuze explains, ‘The coldness is both protective milieu and medium, cocoon and vehicle: it protects supersensual sentimentality as inner life, and expresses it as external order, as wrath and severity.’ (Deleuze 1967: 52) Erika’s own supersensuality is most detectable when her exterior coldness slightly thaws, such as the first scene of the film when she breaks down in tears after fighting with her mother, and in the scene prior to Walter’s first lesson where he inelegantly reveals his love for her, declaring, “I’ve had you stuck on my mind like a nut on a bolt.” Erika’s reply of, “stop lying” as opposed to, say, “that’s inappropriate” or “stop this nonsense” is disarmingly curious considering her glacial manner earlier in the film. It is startling because her exterior severity suddenly verges towards innocence.
Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter is also characteristic of Deleuze’s masochistic model; taking place in a public bathroom during a concert hall rehearsal, it demonstrates Erika’s active suspension of gratification as she repeatedly frustrates Walter’s attempts to dominate her, deflecting his advances as she threatens, “If you don’t stop immediately, I’ll leave.” As Deleuze postulates, ‘(Reality) is affected not by negation but by a disavowal that transposes it into fantasy. Suspense performs the same function in relation to the ideal which is also relegated to fantasy.’ (Deleuze 1967: 72) Consequently, scenes where Erika visits the erotica shop, mutilates her genitals, or watches a couple have sex at a drive-in cinema, are always seen as a direct response to moments she shares with Walter. Erika consumes pornographic material like Benny (Arno Frisch) consumes violent films in Haneke’s second feature Benny’s Video (Haneke, 1992). She sits rigidly watching the footage not for arousal to lead to instant gratification, but like a student engaged in research. It is her attempt to preserve the ideal of her fantasy by sacrificing the real, as Deleuze writes, ‘It rests on universal disavowal as a reactive process and on universal suspension as an Ideal of pure imagination; the descriptions remain, but they are displaced or frozen, suggestive but free from obscenity.’ (Deleuze 1967: 35) Erika’s incessant staring out of the window of her Conservatory classroom gradually begins to appear less like a vacant expression of inertia at being trapped and more like a private indulgence; it is a chance to consciously manipulate her masochistic fantasies in a daydream, a reverie that she is denied as she lies next to the regulating maternal superego at night. As she gazes out of the window, Haneke often chooses to position Erika with her back to camera, her face defiantly hidden- therefore encouraging the spectator to engage with the text and visualize her imaginings.
Michael Haneke’s Masochistic Aesthetic
La Pianiste was released amidst fierce debate in the press regarding a new wave of extravagant sexual explicitness in European cinema (though primarily from France) and was one of the films cited in a series of articles in the journal Sight & Sound focusing on this trend alongside Irreversible(Noé, 2002), Baise Moi (Trinh Thi & Despentes, 2001), Romance (Breillat, 1999), I Stand Alone (Noé, 1998), A Ma Soeur! (Breillat, 2001), Intimacy (Chereau, 2001) and The Idiots (von Trier, 1998) (Wheatley 2009: 134). These films were united by transgressive themes and a new frankness towards the representation of both male and female body. But whilst thematically linked to some of the aforementioned titles, and containing some (intra-diegetic) hardcore sex, on closer inspection Haneke’s formal approach to La Pianiste means that it conspicuously stands out as a septic anomaly.
Similar to the aforementioned Funny Games and (to a lesser extent) Benny’s Video, both of which had roots in the thriller genre, Haneke draws on established generic structures to act as a kind of filmic shorthand in order to swiftly create audience engagement. On the surface, with its female-centred story of emotional repression, illicit love affairs and contemporary social themes, La Pianiste appears to be firmly based within the tradition of romantic melodrama (4). The sparing use of archetypal characters and situations enables Haneke to promote audience identification whilst at the same time employing an almost ascetic approach to narrative which sees him eschewing overt psychological explanation for character motivation. All of the lead characters in the film, at least superficially, could be said to be genre archetypes, for example, Erika’s flawed heroine, Mother’s domineering matriach and Walter’s dashing young suitor. Likewise, the film displays such generic characteristics as the austere mise en scene mirroring Erika’s personality, potentially scandalous secrets used for narrative suspense and, after her relationship with Walter begins, Erika is even afforded a subtle visual transformation as she allows her hair fall to her shoulders, she begins to wear make-up and her clothes change from browns and greys to more vibrant, expressive colours. All of these devices are regularly used in the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s by directors like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)).
Haneke’s use of music as an audio correlative to parallel and shade the main narrative is also linked to the development of the melodramatic form. (Neale 2000: 196) For example, as Haneke settles on a close-up shot of Erika listening to Walter play for the first time at the bourgeois family recital, prelap dialogue from the succeeding scene is introduced and we hear Erika quoting a poem from Schubert’s Winterreisse (verse written by Wilhelm Muller), “Dreaming of what they don’t have, replenished of good and bad. And the next morning all flown away.” The film then cuts to Erika teaching her young student Anna (Anna Sigalevitch) and the words are revealed to be part of the lesson. These words are repeated evoking different resonances later in the film when Erika jealously observes Walter as he comforts an anxious Anna during a concert rehearsal. In the next scene, Erika smashes a glass and callously places the broken shards into the pocket of Anna’s coat (5). Upon hearing Anna’s scream, Erika openly expresses her resentment to Walter as she encourages him to “Be her brave protector” – an obvious allusion to the gallant male archetype of classical melodrama. Through this musical shadowing, the ambivalent place of Walter in Erika’s fantasy life is made clear, as are her fears of being seduced and then summarily discarded by him, as Haneke himself explains, ‘The 17th song holds a central place in the film, and could be viewed as the motto of Erika and the film itself. The whole cycle establishes the idea of following a path not taken by others, which gives an ironic effect to the film.’ (Sharrett 2003)
Haneke’s economical and understated use of these genre elements in La Pianiste was evidently the result of experiments carried out in his earlier films. With Funny Games, Haneke discovered the danger of utilising explicitly generic structures when the film was categorised alongside the cycle of humorous, post-modern slasher films of the mid-1990s like Scream (Craven, 1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespie, 1997). Though, by Haneke’s own admission, this perception undoubtedly contributed to the international success of his film (Wheatley 2009: 46), it encouraged the thrill-seeking audience to view Funny Games as a mere genre parody rather than a serious moral exploration of the consumption of violent images. This was followed by his first French language production, Code Unknown (Haneke, 2000), where Haneke offers a more subtle demonstration of the emotional power of genre convention to build audience engagement in the short scene late in the film where a child teeters on the edge of a balcony. Even though Haneke’s technique noticeably changes, for example, the introduction of camera zooms and rapid montage editing instead of the long unbroken takes which had been established as the film’s primary aesthetic modality, the first-time spectator is still likely to be gripped by the suspense of the scene. As the child is saved, Haneke cuts to Anne (Juliet Binoche) and her co-star dubbing their vocal performances in a studio, mischievously revealing the scene to be a film within a film. The sense of relief that the spectator felt at the safety of the child quickly dissolves when the scene is revealed to be a reflexive construction (6). This appears to have been an instructive experiment for Haneke’s approach to the narrative of La Pianiste by showing that only basic elements of genre are required in order to create an emotional attachment between spectator and the film text.
Though Haneke’s appropriation of generic structures is undoubtedly linked to his increasing international profile, larger budgets and desire to reach a broader audience, it has not lessened the unsettling severity of his recent work. In fact, the modernist distanciation techniques used in his earlier films (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance(Haneke, 1994)) are still present and, it could be argued, the elements of genre have further enriched his work. In her book, Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Catherine Wheatley discusses Haneke’s reflexive practices and identifies what she calls a ‘first and second generation modernism’ within the later texts that restrict audience identification and then make them an active participant within the text. First generation modernism -or ‘benign’ modernism- has its roots in the 1960s French counter-cinema of filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, which was a subversion of classical forms of cinematic storytelling – in particular the cause and effect narrative structures of mainstream Hollywood cinema. It is a cinema defined in opposition to the strictures of traditional narrative film; using distanciation techniques that negate the illusion of cinema and draw attention to the text as a construct. Wheatley’s second generation modernism –or ‘aggressive’ modernism- builds on this reflexivity and uses genre convention to initiate desire in the spectator only for Haneke to obstruct this pleasure drive by drawing attention to why they desire what they do – which in turn causes feelings of ‘unpleasure’ in the spectator. As Wheatley explains, ‘Where first-generation modernism only calls attention to the film, second-generation modernism calls their [the spectators’] attention to themselves, as a consumer of that film.’ (Wheatley 2009: 95) In doing this, Haneke seemingly endeavours to develop a more rational, moral spectator who is able to question their own complicity with the text. In La Pianiste, this technique is perhaps most evident in Haneke’s depiction of sex.
It is vital to Haneke’s thesis that all of the of the sex is kept strictly off screen -with the notable exception of the intra-diegetic pornographic footage used early in the film- and so I would strongly disagree with Robin Wood’s assertion that, ‘Haneke, in La Pianiste, would have liked to show us everything, since one of the film's central projects is clearly the demystification of sex.’ (Wood 2002) Instead, Haneke uses these images to both illustrate the severe extremes of reference that serve Erika’s fantasies and confront the audience with a particular type of sexual representation. It is pornography as the ultimate expression of the sadistic male gaze. Erika derives no scopophilic pleasure from viewing the footage – instead she utilises its pedagogical content. It is not a coincidence that Erika selects the scene of fellatio and then in their first sexual encounter with Walter attempts to recreate the act - Haneke suggests that it is as far as her knowledge of the physical experience of sex extends. At no point in La Pianiste is the landscape of the human body eroticised, but rather it is a site associated with feelings of disgust, such as when Erika vomits after performing fellatio on Walter at the ice rink. Similarly, when Erika reveals her collection of masochistic equipment to Walter which includes a rubber mask, chains and several different types of rope – according to Isabelle Huppert, carefully slipping the box out from under her bed like a ‘little girl would pull out her good luck charms’ (Huppert 2002)- the camera is never allowed any fetishising close-ups. In her seminal essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey proposed that cinematic representation of women positioned them as the passive subject of the active gaze of the scopophilic male and that, ‘Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle (in the cinema).’ (Mulvey 1975: 750) Drawing on a Freudian psychoanalytical view of sadism (male possesses the female by turning her into a fetishised object in order to obscure castration anxiety), Mulvey identified three ‘voyeuristic-scopophilic’ looks inherent in filmic pleasure; the eye of the camera as it records the scene, the characters’ view of one another within the scene, and the spectator watching the completed scene. But how does our Deleuzian model affect Mulvey’s assertion? As Gaylyn Studlar describes:
In suggesting that the oral mother could be the primary figure of identification and power in clinical and aesthetic manifestations of masochism, Deleuze’s theory of masochistic desire challenges the notion that male scopic pleasure must centre around control – never identification with or submission to the female. (Studlar 1985: 778)
It is possible to move beyond views rooted in the flawed social binary of gender (flawed because many more configurations of sex exist) and instead identify a look specifically based in the Deleuzian differentiation of sadism and masochism. In its rejection of fetishisation and with it the male gaze, La Pianiste could be said to be a post-Mulvey text which identifies a fourth look –that of the masochistic aesthetic of the critically aware spectator- which is founded in Haneke’s use of second-generation modernism within a framework of the Deleuzian differentiation of masochism. It is a look that refuses to collude with spectator desires, but incorporates fantasy by way of the unseen and then wakes the spectator up to the logical results of those desires.
In what could be described as an aesthetic of disavowal, Haneke’s approach to La Pianiste is one of austere restraint which reflects Erika’s own masochistic negation of sensuality and draws direct comparisons with writings of Masoch, whose work, according to Deleuze, ‘Consists in multiplying the disavowals in order to create the coldness of aesthetic suspense.’ (Deleuze 1967: 133) Haneke’s film has an icy, hyper-realist aesthetic, largely dispensing with anything that might stimulate pleasure within the audience, such as camera movement, expressive colour palate and point of view shots. Haneke uses wide-angle lenses to create images of great clarity and depth –often devoid of specific emphasis- as the spectator is asked to discover the image for themselves. This is also apparent in the film’s editing techniques, where conventional montage is rejected in favour of long takes, as Haneke describes:
Film is always manipulation, but if each scene is only one shot, then, I think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one tries to stay close to a "real time" framework. The reduction of montage to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that more contemplation is required. (Sharrett 2003)
At no point are Erika’s fantasies visualised, and so the spectator’s reference points are the same as Erika’s – the extremes of hardcore pornography and the austerity of bourgeois Vienna. Most noticeably, the flashbacks of the young Erika from Jelinek’s novel are also absent; in their place Haneke invents new characters (Anna Schober and her Mother (played by Haneke regular Susanne Lothar)) in order to retain the novel’s thematic richness without seeming to provide the audience with explicit explanations (7). This formalised temporality enables Haneke to utilise second-generation modernism by seducing and positioning the spectator with generic conventions into identification and desire which are then negated by the disavowal of sexual or fantasmatic imagery.
The most significant point at which character, theme and form converge to create second-generation reflexivity in La Pianiste is towards the end of the film during the pivitol sequence in Erika’s apartment where she finally divulges her masochistic fantasises to Walter. Erika’s suspension of gratification and narrativising of fantasy have led her to create a written list of masochistic demands, or what Deleuze calls ‘The Contract’. (Deleuze 1967: 65) This is the formalising agreement between victim and torturer; a step-by-step instruction manual of consensual sexual violence. Like Erika, the spectator has been in a state of suspense for much of the second half of the film and eagerly await his reaction. Erika finally exposes her desires and as a result is more vulnerable in this scene than in any other during the film. Erika sits quietly as Walter incredulously reads out loud the letter which states in minute detail her carefully crafted fantasises of violence and obscene sex acts, including, “Punch me in the stomach to force me to thrust my tongue into your behind.” At this point, Walter looks up towards her to evaluate her reaction; Haneke then cuts to a close up of Erika and she raises her head, returning his stare but is directly staring into the camera lens. As it cuts back to him, Walter is still looking to the left of the frame. This subtle, but clear disparity in the actors’ eyeline jolts the audience into an awareness of the film as a construct just at a moment where –through Haneke’s use of the genre framework- they would expect a dramatic highpoint in the film (8). Walter is positioned, by both Erika and Haneke, as the fulfiller of the spectator’s sadistic desires. Though initially repulsed by her demands, when Walter finally confronts Erika by staging her own version of the Lacanian concept of fundamental fantasy (9), she finds the reality of the experience immediately unendurable, for reasons which Slavoj Zizek explains:
Fundamental fantasy is not the ultimate hidden truth, but the ultimate founding lie, which is why the distance toward the fantasy, the refusal to stage it directly, does not simply bear witness to a force of repression, but also enables us to articulate this fantasy’s falsity. (Zizek 2003)
This scene also acts as a final challenge to the Freudian view of the interchangeability of sadism and masochism. Walter’s sadistic urges, under the tutelage of Erika (10), are here fully exposed as he remains contemptuous of the contract and (in a later scene) rapes her. By stripping away this fantasmatic aid and introducing reality it causes a tension within the text by obstructing the spectator’s pleasure drive resulting in disturbing feelings of unpleasure as the audience are aggressively confronted with ethical questions relating to what they wished to see on screen.
Haneke structures the final sequence for Hitchcockian suspense by showing Erika concealing a knife in her handbag as she attends the concert. The audience waits for Erika to carry out her plan of revenge, asking, ‘Will she stab Walter?’ After waiting for him to arrive, Walter cheerfully walks past her in the lobby, and Erika, standing alone, stabs herself with the knife. At the point at which audience identification with Erika is at its peak, Haneke allows her to retreat and become remote again. The look on Erika’s face as she drives the knife into her flesh appears utterly unreadable and is unlike anything in cinema (Fig.1). In fact, the image’s closest approximation is another moment of primal retribution in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous photograph entitled, Gestapo informer recognised by a woman she had denounced, deportation camp, Dessau, Germany, 1945 (Fig.2), and could even be read as another of the recurring allusions to fascism throughout Haneke’s work (See Wheatley 2009: 20).
Many interpretations have been provided of this shocking act of self-punishment including the severing of vital nerves connected to her hand making her unable to play piano (Wood 2002) and even suicide (Zizek 2003 - though Jelinek’s novel states that ‘the wound is harmless’). A Deleuzian reading might be that Erika, similar to Masoch’s protagonist Severin at the end of Venus in Furs, experiences the complete dissolution of masochistic suspense and the emotional act of violence against the self is a move towards a new sadistic persona as a by-product of masochism, as Masoch writes, ‘The rosy mist of supersensuality has lifted.’ It is an example of the sadist’s complete rejection of fantasy.
With this article, I have examined how Haneke’s formally rigorous approach to La Pianiste dares to guide the spectator towards a collision course with feelings of unpleasure by utilising both classical and modernist techniques. The disparity between Erika’s fantasies and their reality remains and this is reflected by Haneke’s positioning of the spectator whose wait to be titillated by lurid spectacle is to be similarly disappointed. The film’s open ending which sees Erika disappearing into the dark Vienna night -a rejection of the closed narrative typical of Hollywood melodrama- leaves the spectator in a state of permanent suspense as to Erika’s fate. For Haneke’s cold and cruel aesthetic of disavowal, to include spectator concessions such as ‘explanations’ would simply be an attempt to exchange one set of fantasy structures for another.
(1) Das Schloß (Haneke, 1997) his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle was originally made for television, but was released in Austrian cinemas after the success of Funny Games (Wheatley 2009: 11).
(2) With the casting of Isabelle Huppert, La Pianiste could be said to be Haneke’s first film to be built around an internationally-known star. Though Juliet Binoche featured in Code Unknown, she was part of an ensemble of actors, whereas Huppert appears in every scene of La Pianiste.
(3) Hence sadomasochism, a word Deleuze perspicuously dismissed as a ‘semiological howler.’ (Deleuze 1967:134)
(4) A brief glance at La Pianiste’s promotional poster, DVD sleeve and tie-in re-release of Jelinek’s original novel, which all use the same image of Huppert and Magimel sharing a passionate embrace, would seem to support this.
(5) Robin Wood provides an in depth analysis of Haneke’s use of Winterriese and its parallels to La Pianiste in his essay "Do I disgust you?" or, tirez pas sur La Pianiste first published in CineActionno.59, 2002.
(6) Again demonstrating the marketing department’s comfort with the stability of genre iconography, it seems like a nice irony that this brief scene, specifically the image of a screaming Juliet Binoche, was used to sell the film on its promotional material.
(7) It might be said that the cinematic flashback is inherently Freudian in its traditional function of ‘explaining’ character behaviour, but Haneke’s dislike of overt explanation has been well documented, as Haneke himself declared, ‘Every explanation is a limitation and every limitation is an indirect lie.’ (Scott 2005: 104)
(8) There is a similar, though rather less subtle moment in Funny Games as one of the antagonists suddenly turns to the camera, smiles and winks.
(9) For Lacan, fundamental fantasy is the basis of unconscious desire. (Zizek 1989)
(10) These were hinted at earlier in the film in Walter’s apparent excitement in knowing that Erika had planted the glass in Anna’s pocket. As Erika runs upstairs to the bathroom, Haneke cuts to a close up of Walter; his head moving from Anna’s bloodied hand towards Erika. This excitement initiates their first sexual encounter.
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