Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, The

“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the second feature from the Quay Brothers, is an uneasy, often intriguing foray into live-action filmmaking from a duo best known for their animated shorts. Never quite materializing, the narrative becomes increasingly difficult to follow, but the visuals are never less than bizarre. This is truly an experimental film worth seeing for its risk-taking even if the experiment doesnt quite work.

The Quay Brothers are not only first-rate animators but also good craftsmen, constructing fantastical worlds out of miniature set pieces for films, plays and operas. Here the signature set piece is Dr. Drozs (Gottfried John) sinister castle, flanked by silhouettes of mountain peaks that stick out like daggers. Dr. Droz operates a mental facility but is loony enough to be a patient himself. He summons Felisberto (Cesar Sarachu), a meek, rather silly-looking man, to tune his piano. Once Felisberto arrives, he discovers that he will not be tuning a piano but what appears to be some strange permutation of an organ.

The world that Felisberto has wondered into resembles a sci-fi fantasia, a forest that would be quite lovely if the scenes were not shot in an eerie blinding light that suggests a UFO is close by. The images have that hazy quality of a half-dreaming state; we are not sure if we should take these scenes at face value. The distortion often makes it difficult for us to grasp what’s happening on-screen but it does reflect Felisbertos discombobulated state of mind.

Dr. Droz offers no clear explanation as to how this world operates, or what exactly Felisbertos job is. Instead, the doctor gives him enigmatic advice that involves word puzzles or vague phrases meant to be clues. Assumpta (Assumpta Serna), Dr. Drozs seductive, curvaceous assistant (and probably more), points to a painting on a stone wall and a man who is meant to be Felisberto. She tells him that he is part of a painting already painted.

At night Felisberto has disturbing dreams that involve nasty close-ups of gums and teeth, a glowing canoe and malevolent phallic imagery. He suspects that Dr. Droz plays a part in these dreams. As it happens, these dreams are connected to Dr. Drozs shady past, involving the murder of a woman named Malvina (Amira Casar). Malvina appears in Felisbertos dreams as a doleful woman in a veil who remains immobile despite Felisbertos best efforts to help her.

It’s in these hopeless yet intoxicating sequences where the theme of irreversible fate rings the strongest. But in the reality sequences, it is difficult to fathom any sort of theme, partly because these sequences are just as flimsy and ethereal as the dream sequencestowards the end of the film we cant even differentiate between the two.

The scenes are not staticunsettling peripheral happenings, such as the blurry forms of mental patients running through trees, peak our interest. However, conversations are so truncated that they do nothing to advance the film, and what was once intriguing because infuriating. The dialogue is needlessly cryptic, dragging in circles rather than pushing into the next scene.

Nonetheless, visually the movie is splendid. The Quay Brothers, like many artists working in the sci-fi genre, are aware of the beauty, the cruel authority and the destructive force that machinery wields. At times the camera glides over Dr. Drozs organ in a smooth and sensual way. At another point, the filmmakers cut rapidly between the organ pipes and bloody teeth, turning the organ into a disembodied monster.

Unfortunately, the Quays seem to feel that plot and dialogue can be revealed through suggestion, that they merely have to brush up upon some enigmatic spark and everything will become clear. They mistake confusion for mystery.

If the whole movie had been a series of surreal images, if the filmmakers had no intention of telling a story, then we might have accepted the incoherence. As it stands, the frustration of not being able to follow the plot makes it difficult to just let the movie wash over us. The bare story detracts from the power of the images, just as the live-action makes a clever animation sequence involving a stop-motion ax murderer look cheap and out-of-place.

“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes brings to mind in its non-conformist spirit the original Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Maddin, like the Quay Brothers, uses minimal resources to create places that seem plucked right out of his head. In The Saddest Music in the World, (2003) for instance, he turns a warehouse into Winnipeg with dump trucks full of glitter-dusted snow. Here is a movie that is every bit as weird as The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. At times it is a little indecipherable (the grainy resolution takes some getting used to), but using sharp storytelling and hilarious dialogue, Maddin has made a memorable commentary on our obsession with sadness.

If you like movies that discover new worlds, or look at our world in a different way, then this movie will take you to mind-boggling places. But let’s hope that the Quay Brothers find their footing, that they bolster their idiosyncratic style with a clear vision.

Written by Kate Findley