The degree to which you’re able to fully invest in the Brothers Quay‘s new full-length “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” may well depend on your relationship to their earlier works. Quay regulars will probably look past the general opacity of “Piano Tuner”‘s narrative, which is simple in its arc but generally inscrutable from moment to moment, and the often inanimate performance style adopted by its handful of characters, in favor of those sequences in which the twin filmmakers unleash their trademark mastery of miniatures and puppetry.
There is much to like about “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes,” though an already existing predilection greatly helps. Even though the story of an opera singer, Malvina van Stille (porcelain Amira Casar from Breillat’s underrated “Anatomy of Hell“), kidnapped by adoring fan cum mad scientist composer, Dr. Emmanuel Droz (“Institute Benjamenta”), and the piano tuner Felisberto (Cesar Saracho) who attempts her rescue, evokes familiar mythology like Orpheus and Eurydice or the Phantom of the Opera, the pieces used to string the story out come wrapped in a gauzy haze, both visually (the images conjure a blurred de Chirico) and logically. By the end of the film, the Quays haven’t injected their material with any real sense of mounting suspense around Malvina’s rescue–the more collegial relationship between the antagonists coupled with the gradually ebbing narrative largely short circuits the kind of conventions filmmakers of a less, well, European bent would wring from this material.
“Piano Tuner” manages to walk a line between fable-like simplicity and complex avant-garde storytelling–seen here as perhaps not the oddest of bedfellows after all. A few nighttime segments of the film by the seashore that directly evoke silent filmmaking (reversed motion shot by an upside-down camera, in black-and-white, recalling Murnau) make this linkage most clear. It’s in their play with the cinematic apparatus itself which finds the Quays most successful; occasionally the incorporation of Dr. Droz’s intricate and strangely whimsical automatons (Felisberto’s been called to the doctor’s private island to tune them), is a tad forced, following a similar schema: a pair of characters walk up to a structure, look at it, cut to the miniatures. They’re often beautiful to look upon, but never affect as powerfully as one of the Quays’ hugely disorienting trick lens shots, or a particularly memorable lingering POV of the sea as seen through a silk veil.
“Piano Tuner” resembles most the hazy, indistinct quality of earlier Sokurov like “Whispering Pages” or “Stone,” but with an eye towards the operatic (the score is peppered with sweeping glissandos). As in those films, emphasis isn’t placed so much on airtight narrative as in providing an enveloping experience, and if you’d consider yourself someone willing to accept a thin wisp of story in exchange for potentially rapturous imagery, then you might just love “The Piano Tuner Earthquakes.” The Quays definitely push this construction as far as it can go–any less beautiful and it’d be dull (even still, it can be at times), any more story removed and it’d be completely without momentum. But in the wake of last year’s similarly executed (in some ways) “Mirrormask,” “Piano Tuner”‘s almost refreshing. It’d completely cross that gap if only it weren’t so still.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He currently works for Magnolia Pictures.