The films of the Brothers Quay often seem less like movies in the conventional sense and more like half-remembered nightmares from the depths of the subconscious. Their films are quintessentially “not for everybody,” in the same way that absinthe, fetish, and tantra aren’t: You have to accept going “out there” more than a bit in order to enjoy the ride.
The Quays’ latest film, “The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes,” comes over a decade after their last feature-length offering, “Institute Benjamenta”(1995). But their modus-operandi has changed little in the interim: Intricate, baroque stop-motion animation is combined with live actors inhabiting otherworldly sets, with the entire product designed to look like some old, silent-era film unearthed after gathering mold in a catacomb for a few decades.
I’ll admit to being a bit of a fan of stop-motion animation. Whether it’s cartoony stuff like “Wallace & Gromit” or “Corpse Bride,” or darker stuff like Czech maestro Jan Svankmajer’s grotesquerie, stop-motion possesses a texture, a material presence that continues to elude computer-generated images, all glossy and flat, and — particularly in the deep focus — fuzzy and indistinct. It also seems as if the daunting technical aspects of CGI have caused a brain-freeze in its animators’ creative vision: So many fantasy worlds all look the same.
That’s not something the Quays will ever be accused of; “The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes” — set in an imaginary Europe about a century or two ago — looks fantastically, magically unique, a realm of skin-tingling wonder and insinuating fear. You can sink deep into its miasma of mottled light and beckoning shadows, where half-glimpsed figures perform strange rituals in silver-tinted forests at night and inanimate objects come to life in the most disturbing ways (such as the cabinet with a fleshy, decaying human mouth). Many images here — among them the disembodied hands rowing a boat across shimmering waters and a dark room containing a vortex of water that rises upward when light strikes it — will haunt you like some nagging childhood phobia.
It’s no lie to say the Quays seem more in love with mood than story. While the film does have a plot — pitched somewhere between a Gothic fairy tale, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe — clarity is not its strong point. Charitably, one can say the film moves according to its own dream logic, and a dream must remain somewhat inscrutable, cloaked in mystery. The best dreams, though — and the best dream-films, such as “Mulholland Drive” or “Meshes of the Afternoon” — also impart a clear sense of meaning and purpose. That is somewhat lacking here.
The film follows opera diva Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar) , who is engaged to composer Adolfo Blin (Cesar Sarachu), but their love enrages Adolfo’s jealous rival for Malvina’s affections, Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John). In the midst of a performance, there’s a huge crashing sound, everything goes black and when the lights go up Malvina lies dead — or catatonic — on the stage.
This seems to be Droz’s work, and he steals her body and takes it to his island, where, in a strange ritual, she is revived, but without memory or spirit. Droz then hires a piano tuner — also, confusingly, played by Sarachu — to service the mechanisms of his collection of automaton (dioramas peopled with mechanical puppets.) His diabolical plan is to install Malvina in one of his machines, for what he ominously refers to as “their final performance.”
The piano tuner senses that something is wrong, but he’s distracted by Droz’s seductive mistress, Assumpta (Assumpta Serna). He’s worried about the zombie-like patients at Droz’s asylum, the weird goings-on in the dead of night, and the creepy crawling hands and ax-chopping puppets of the automaton. “Don’t look so serious,” Assumpta tells him. “After a while you get used to the confusion.”
The viewer should be so lucky; much of the film is intimidatingly oblique, and it makes the notorious “Blue Box” scene in “Mulholland Drive” seem positively straightforward. Director Terry Gilliam, himself no stranger to the odd, has described the film by saying “the Quays have created (a) world . . . which hypnotizes me, but I don’t fully understand.” I couldn’t agree more.
“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” opens at Theater Image Forum on Oct. 18. along with a retrospective of several short films by the Brothers Quay, including “The Comb” and “Street of Crocodiles.”