Eleven years after Institute Benjamenta, Stephen and Timothy Quay return to the land of the live-action—and the fixations that have defined their groundbreaking stop-motion animated work—with The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, a tragic fairy tale drenched in otherworldly visual splendor. As with Institute, this new film concerns the appearance of an interloper at a secluded forest mansion, in this case piano tuner Felisberto’s (César Saracho) arrival at the villa of Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John), who has abducted and imprisoned beautiful opera singer Malvina (Amira Casar). Felisberto has been hired to fine-tune not pianos (of which Droz has none) but seven wondrous musical automatons—stop-motion creations housed in giant boxes and viewable through widescreen glass windows—and it is here that the Quays most directly and evocatively dramatize their overriding preoccupation with the dialectic between waking and slumbering life, the rapport shared by the tangible and the illusory, and the magical animation of inherently inanimate objects.
A combination of allusions both classical (Orpheus, Lazarus) and esoteric (a recurring anecdote about ants, spores, and insanity that forms one of the film’s thematic cruxes), the brothers’ story follows Felisberto (himself a doppelganger of Malvina’s true love) as he’s entranced by Droz’s housekeeper Assumpta (the lusciously mysterious Assumpta Serna), uncovers the mad doctor’s plan to stage an opera starring Malvina that will bring catastrophe to the cultural establishment that’s shunned him, and endeavors to rescue the captive princess. However, with the Quays treating their actors like expressive puppets, Piano Tuner‘s pulse-pounding passion is derived not from narrative plotting—which, though more linear than Institute, is obscure and lethargic by design—but from stunning close-ups of their cast’s expressive countenances (John’s in particular) and ominously ethereal imagery (as in a backward-running moonlit sequence). A sense of manipulation pervades the proceedings, with the performers mechanically moving about environments that, constructed with wire, dirt, flesh, and fog, come across as large-scale variations of the Quay shorts’ claustrophobic, tracking shot-navigated milieus.
Snow globe visions and gnarly mouth nightmares swirl together in this darkly lyrical fantasia, the brothers’ employment of ominous wind-tunnel drones, pulsating underwater-ish shadows, and a burnished palette of silvery black and whites and heightened colors giving the film a sense of the unreal and real symbiotically blending together. That this journey through an eerie unconscious landscape is ultimately little more than a collection of familiar Quay constructs and motifs makes Piano Tuner both sumptuously self-contained and frustratingly insular, the directors offering up a private world not easily traversed without at least passing knowledge of their eccentric oeuvre. When married to a general lack of momentum, this abstruse state of affairs requires one to embrace Assumpta’s opinion that “after a while, you get used to the confusion.” Quay novices will likely beg to differ, but for those on the filmmakers’ bizarre, idiosyncratic wavelength, such opaqueness in no way makes this unsettling descent into dreamlike imaginativeness any less haunting.