Cult Cinema: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) - Reviewed

If you mention the top of avant-garde animation artists, whether it be hand drawn or stop-motion rendered, the Quay Brothers will invariably come up in discussion.  Identical twin American stop-motion animating legends, the work of Stephen and Timothy Quay remains timeless and seem to come from deep within their kindred subconscious.  Often gothic and possessing the soft-focus patina of a waking nightmare, their mostly known for their short films, some of which were curated some years back with Christopher Nolan’s The Brothers Quay in 35mm tour. 

What they’re not generally known for, however, are feature film projects.  To date, the enigmatic surrealist filmmakers have only produced two feature length pictures in between shorts which are every bit as impenetrable, dreamy and unsettling as their iconic short film works.  Whether or not they work as narrative cinematic fiction is open to debate but as anyone who approaches surrealism will tell you, the story is sometimes secondary to the sensory experience unfolding.

In their second feature in ten years (executive produced by Terry Gilliam no less), the enigmatic and dreamy The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes exists in its own bizarre dimension which takes the filmmakers’ respective obsessions with automatons to new visual heights.  Something of a German Expressionist influenced melodrama told through the Boschian painterly style of the Quays, the film zeroes in on Felisberto (Cesar Sarachu), a lanky piano tuner tasked with servicing the mercurial Dr. Droz (Gottfried John) in his secluded villa.  Upon working in this strange environment, a plot unfolds involving a strange diabolical opera prominently featuring beautiful singer Malvina (Amira Casar) including but not limited to madness and murder.

From its indecipherable title to the near impenetrable object that is the film itself, the uncompromising vision of the Quays isn’t going to be for all tastes.  Moving at a mannered, deliberately sleepy pace and lensed digitally (a first for the Quays) in soft-focus with intentionally dim lighting by Nic Knowland, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes like Lynch’s Eraserhead isn’t so much a straightforward piece of storytelling as it is a phantasmagorical environment you soak in while watching.  Though executed in the time-honored precision of the Quays, the world of this film is the kind that is very easy to lose yourself in.

What immediately catches the viewer’s eye is the set design which looks somewhat like an overgrown deranged children’s playhouse.  Think of it as one of the miniature sets for their animated shorts brought to live action thanks to a brilliant production design.  Watching the film you wonder what it must have been like for the actors to set foot on these frankly uncanny set pieces though everyone involved in the cast give that same mannered, soft speech frequently heard in Lars Von Trier films.

Equally strange is the film’s soundtrack and eerie sound design which is equal parts spooky industrial and haunting avant-garde orchestral music by Christopher Slaski, making the picture as eerie to see as it is to hear.  One gets the sense you’re in an otherworldly cathedral upon diving into the Quays’ soundscape which has that same unsettling industrial ambience Lynch fans are accustomed to.  Either way, from the flickering soft vistas to the creepy sound design, the world fashioned here by the Quays is an unpleasant yet occasional enchanting place to be in.

A British/German/French co-production, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes would not exist were it not for the reputation of the Quays who are obviously pushing the outer limits of the cinematic medium’s capabilities.  This isn’t going to appeal to everyone and would not come recommended for those unfamiliar with the Quays.  Having seen the film a few times now, it has the mystique of Lynch or Bunuel with the visceral horror of H.R. Giger but like Lynch’s interminable and impenetrable Inland Empire it remains difficult to precisely put one’s finger on it.  Not for all tastes but for the adventurous cinephile and Quays die-hards, not to be missed!

--Andrew Kotwicki