Dirs. Stephen & Timothy Quay, 2005, UK/Germany/France, 99 mins, some subtitles
Cast: Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna, Cesar Sarachu
Review by Angus Macdonald
The second feature from The Quay Brothers, two of the greatest animation filmmakers working today, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes doesn’t quite seem to fit with their previous body of work. Their short animated films, including the masterpieces This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Street of Crocodiles (1986), and The Comb (1990), created insular disturbing worlds that exist behind walls, under floorboards, deep within forgotten store cupboards where various objects (screws, elastic bands, dust, light bulbs) came to life, and strange, disfigured toy-like figures explored the dark corners of our nightmares. Made a decade earlier, the stunning Institute Benjamenta proved that The Quays were just as masterful at making a full-length, almost completely live action film.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes begins in the world of opera singers, concerts, romance, and mysterious observers lurking in private boxes. During a performance opera singer Malvina (Casar) seemingly dies on stage and is whisked away by the malevolent and megalomaniacal Dr. Droz (John) to his secluded tropical island. Felisberto (Sarachu, who also plays Malvina’s fiancé at the beginning of the film), a renowned but modest and shy piano tuner is called to the island, not to tune pianos but to repair the machinery of seven musical automata, mechanical contraptions filled with miniature worlds and strange shadowy figures. Felisberto, meets and falls in love with the haunted Malvina, and realises that Dr. Droz’s plans of a grand performance held during the coming lunar eclipse is actually a chance to take revenge on the opera world which spurned him.
Finding inspiration in Jules Verne’s story ‘The Carpathian Castle’ (also about an abducted opera singer), and Raymond Roussel’s novel ‘Locus Solus’, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is filled with many of the Quay Brothers trademarks. From the sumptuous visuals including Nic Knowland’s beautiful HD photography (The Quays quote Arnold Böcklin’s painting ‘Island of the Dead’ as an influence, which also inspired the 1945 Val Lewton produced horror film of the same title), which jump from dream-like artificial settings, surrealistic landscapes, bleached-out sepia colours, to intricately scrutinised extreme close-ups of cogs, switches, gears, and black-eyed antique dolls, to the stunning use of sound design (Quay’s regular Larry Sider again manages to turn the everyday into the nightmarish and vice versa; at one point the soundtrack seems to explode producing one of the biggest shock moments in film for a while).
The most affecting moments are the animated sequences and the visual effects moments such as the elaborate and painstakingly realised explorations of Dr Drosz’s musical automata. One has a grotesque gnashing mouth set within a cabinet, while another holds a small glassy-eyed woodsman chopping away at a tree with an axe. Unsurprisingly these are the scenes that bring the film to life and remind the audience of The Quay’s previous masterpieces. What hampers the film is that these scenes are unfortunately too few and far between. The live action sequences are ironically less animated and more wooden than the animated sequences. The lead actors are oddly stilted and while the overall atmosphere of the film is of a dream-world or a kind of sleep-walking nightmare, the leisurely pacing and the under-heated performances (a sultry and sensuous Serna excluded) leave the film feeling emotionally void.
Beginning with the quotation “These things never happen, but are always”, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes frequently lapses into long stretches of atmospherics which are often confusing and at times taking it’s somnambulistic dream-like goal almost to the point of lethargy. As intricate, striking and beautifully constructed as the film is, it is in need of tightening, shortening, and some complex fine tuning.
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