The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Bizarre fantasy creates uncharted worlds
By Devin D. O’Leary
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Directed by Stephen & Timothy Quay
Cast: César Saracho, Gottfried John, Amira Casar
One thing films do very well is transport audiences to another world. From Metropolis to The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings to Pan’s Labyrinth, films have developed a visual language that’s highly conducive to the creation of imaginative realms. Arguably, some of the best filmmakers in the world are the ones who can not only create previously unseen vistas on the movie screen, but convince audiences of their veracity.
Like fellow avant-garde animator Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Little Otik, Lunacy), twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay have made a career out of fashioning curious live-action/animated worlds of their own unique imaginings. In films both short (“The Street of Crocodiles”) and long (Institute Benjamenta), the Quay brothers have created a body of work mixing live action, animated puppets, antiquated European fairy tales and obscure literary references. (Though their most famous work remains Peter Gabriel’s exuberant “Sledgehammer” video.) The duo’s latest feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, is a gorgeous often confusing journey into the imagination that will leave viewers both dazzled and daunted.
As our grim fairy tale begins, the evil Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John from Institute Benjamenta, channeling the best of silent film villains) kills and abducts gorgeous opera singer Malvina van Stille (former Chanel model Amira Casar) on the eve of her wedding. He spirits her off to his secret workshop where he brings her back to life, setting a dark plan in motion. Time and place are left purposely vague, though turn-of-the-century Europe is as good a touchstone as any.
Our titular piano tuner is Don Felisberto Fernandez (César Saracho, also recruited from Institute Benjamenta), a humble tradesman who has been summoned to the isolated seaside villa of Dr. Droz to “tune” a succession of bizarre and elaborate musical automatons. During his stay, Felisberto learns of the doctor’s plans to stage some sort of diabolical opera with Malvina as its caged bird star. Felisberto secretly conspires to rescue her from her fate; but as he navigates the doctor’s increasingly curious world, our hero finds himself playing his own role in Droz’ twisted puppet play. Like Renfield in Dracula’s castle, there’s no escaping for this fellow.
The scenarios on display in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes are so tactile you’ll want to reach onto the screen and touch them. Strange textures, elaborate images and a sepia-toned palette give this film the look and feel of some otherworldly antique shop. Oddly enough, the Quays’ trademark animation is kept to a minimum. Some stop-motion is used to bring Droz’ bizarre automatons to life, but these machines are glimpsed only in passing and their function remains elusive. One seems to feature a tiny doll chopping at a tree. Another has a rowboat piloted by a pair of severed hands. How these figure musically into an opera is left quite a bit to the imagination of viewers. Nonetheless, you can just see the Quays obsessing over every cracked doll part, every artfully rusted gear, willing a world of exquisite entropy into being.
As the story plays out, the narrative becomes more and more elusive, stopping just short of out-and-out surreality. The Quays don’t seem to have attached any particular set of meanings to their obscuro symbols. There are few signposts to guide viewers in this unique, hermetically sealed environment. Characters and motivations become less solid as the film plays on, and casual viewers will find themselves increasingly adrift. That, of course, is one of the dangers in mapping out uncharted territory--you’re bound to lose some travelers. Nonetheless, there is something mesmerizing about this rattletrap nightmare. Fans of previous work by the Quays and their mentor, Mr. Svankmajer, will find themselves absorbing it all into their unconsciousness like some haunting, half-remembered dream.
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