For their second feature-length film the Quay brothers, identical twins and stop-action animators, have chosen a live-action narrative to showcase their obsession with all things antique, decaying, dehumanized and obtuse. Exquisitely detailed and meticulously crafted, this nightmarish tale of a beautiful opera singer, a mad scientist and a beguiled piano tuner is as visually audacious as it is dramatically impenetrable.
Taking a page from Phantom of the Opera, the story follows a young opera singer named Malvina (Amira Casar), who is murdered at her wedding by the sinister Dr. Droz (Gottfried John). Her body is brought to Droz's secluded island where she is revived in order to perform with the doctor's strange collection of machines. But first Droz's musical automata need to be tuned, so Felisberto (César Saracho), an unsuspecting piano tuner, is summoned. As you might expect, Felisberto falls for Malvina, and vows to help her escape. Unfortunately, the lovers have all been manipulated into becoming a part of Droz's earth-shattering magnum opus.
Or is it all a dream? The line between reality and artifice is in constant flux as the Quays blur their story into incoherence. The actors are barely relevant, intoning their cryptic dialogue as they move from one stylized tableau to another, their conversations repeatedly looping back on themselves. Saracho tries to inject some personality into his exchanges but the overwhelming melancholy of his co-stars keeps everything dreary and monotone. There's nothing wrong with making your audience work for the plot or piece together the thematic connections of your imagery but the Quays are so unconcerned with storytelling that their characters sit like puppets with their strings cut, reciting poetry only the brothers understand.
From a visual standpoint, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes looks amazing. Shifting shadows and light and mirrors, the brothers create a lush, sepia-toned atmosphere that accents the cruel violence of the mechanized world. Their sensibilities are defiantly retro, mixing European elegance with rotting horror. The pipes of Droz's organ are superimposed with bloody teeth, mold and corrosion coat nearly every frame of the film, the whole movie looks and feels like a bad dream.
The Quays' highly regarded animated shorts balanced poetic weirdness with a pitch-black sense of humor. This longer form, devoid of wit or levity, comes across as self-indulgent and clichéd, an exercise in pure stylization that overstays its welcome.
If filmmakers like Guy Maddin (Tales From Gimli Hospital, The Saddest Music in the World) and Swedish animator Jan Svankmajer are household favorites, you may find this visually rich anti-movie a revelation of otherworldly beauty. For the rest of us, however, its surreal and haunting landscapes will yield something a little more earthbound: boredom.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 1, and at 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, March 2-3. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.