Filmmaking twins the Quay Brothers’ first film in 10 years, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” impresses as a visually exquisite, rigorously intellectual but dauntingly obscurantist fable about automatons, opera singers and herniated desire that will appeal exclusively to arthouse auds with rarefied tastes. Pic’s use of color reportedly reps attempt to placate backers with a more “accessible” feature than brothers’ previous, silvery-hued “Institute Benjamenta.” But partly animated new film has similar trance-like pacing, and lacks standout lead perfs of same caliber as in “Benjamenta.” Although secured for release in its co-producing countries, film will send tiny tremors through B.O.
Set in a vaguely 18th century imaginary world where characters speak mostly English but answer to a hodge-podge of Euro-sounding names, the deceptively simple-sounding story recounts how opera singer Malvina van Stille (exotic beauty Amira Casar, giving pic’s strongest perf) is murdered while on stage by the nefarious inventor Dr. Emmanuel Droz (“Benjamenta”-star Gottfriend John) before her wedding to Adolfo (legit thesp Cesar Sarachu, just OK).
Droz squirrels Malvina’s corpse off to his mountain-top villa where he raises her from the dead and plans a “diabolical opera” that will reenact her abduction. For this he needs Felisberto (also played by Sarachu), the titular piano tuner of earthquakes, to tinker with the seven eerie automata Droz has installed around the villa’s grounds.
But the now-amnesiac Malvina recognizes Felisberto’s resemblance to her lost lover, and the two are drawn to one another, despite efforts by housekeeper Assumpta (Assumpta Serna, injecting a welcome carnal note) to vamp Felisberto.
Pic is brimful with beautiful images, from the activities of the rusty, distressed automata (delicately animated sequences by the helmers themselves), to the villa’s deranged gardeners performing repetitive, balletic movements that recall the butler school in “Benjamenta.”
However, accumulation of striking tableaux doesn’t make for a satisfying narrative whole, and by time the final automata whirs into gear there’s no traction to hold aud interest beyond the sheer pleasure of the imagery itself.
While script was penned by the Quays and Alan Passes (who collaborated on “Benjamenta”), story’s roots, per the filmmakers, spring from a typical Quayian mulch of recherche literary, visual and historical sources to produce what they call “poetic science fiction.” On top of this, pic makes knowing nods in direction of all kinds of cinematic forbearers, beginning with the Quays’ hero, Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.
Result is “Tuner” feels more often like some kind of erudite but hermetic game than a drama springing from authentic human emotion. Nevertheless, there is a dogged originality and vision at work here few filmmakers can match, of a piece with the gothic, uncanny quality of the Quays’ animated shorts at their best, such as the masterful “Street of Crocodiles.”
Craft contributions extend helmers’ unique, off-kilter sensibility. Entirely shot in studios, the sets sport desaturated colors (some are miniatures matted together with actors via green-screen), while costumes by Kandis Cook provide bold stabs of color. Editing by Simon Laurie cross-cuts abruptly between action to provide mini-shocks, smoothed over by rich sound design by Larry Sider.