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The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes review

By Guy Maddin

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The Brothers Quay's oneiric, museum-like odyssey The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Timothy and Stephen Quay, the identical-twin surrealist expat Philadelphians who have been wafting intensely gorgeous animated and live-action dreams out into the world from the mildewed tumult of their intensely disordered London museum-cum-atelier since 1979, have a new feature coming out this fall, a full decade after their last, and they’ve never made anything like this before! The long wait was distressful, but The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes repays forbearance astonishingly, and anyway, shouldn’t cinephiles lusting for jaw-dropping filmic tropes endure, if necessary, Time’s painful passage with all the indefatigable patience of animators? It’s not as if you can count on pictures this original coming along very often.

The Brothers Quay here take on a species of love story, addressing more universal, or at least more widely accessible, concerns than they did with 1995’s Institute Benjamenta, their adaptation of pathologically introverted Swiss writer Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, the timorous scribe’s sadly hilarious tribute to meekness and servility among pupils determined to make zeroes of themselves at an alpine butler academy. All these years since, the duo have rued their decision not to remove star Alice Krige’s panties during a singular piece of oneiric choreography that wrapped the South African beauty’s skirts about her head, but their decorous inner butlers probably forbade any such unseemly unsilking. Whatever mistakes of this sort the boys may have made with their first feature, they were clearly determined to learn from them and then, armed with this new live-action picture-making experience in addition to their awesome and already legendary image-making gifts, produce the most strangely and subtly variegated march-past of Love’s delirious mechanisms ever committed to film.

While Walser was the official source of the first film, the novel The Invention of Morel by longtime Jorge Luis Borges collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares seems to be some kind of spiritual inspiration for this far more ambitious and visually innovative second effort. But similarities with the Argentine “science-fiction” classic are located nowhere near the surface, but rather somewhere at the movie’s core. The same astrolabe could be used to steer one’s way through both worlds, and through no other.

Amira Casar, famous stateside for some naked mischief in Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, plays Malvina van Stille, an opera singer plunged mid-aria into a death-like trance by besotted admirer and island dictator Dr. Droz (Quay alumnus Gottfried John). The mellifluously menacing Droz brings his quasi-dead beloved back to the tropical realm over which he rules, a sprawling and soggy estate at times more submerged than Venice ever will be. Here he has constructed enigmatic automatons, as sturdy and stationary as boilers, which run on the power of ocean tides and preside mysteriously over the lunar influences exerted upon the hearts of the country’s few human citizens. These consist of Droz’s enigmatic mistress Assumpta (radiant Spanish planetoid Assumpta Serna) and a troupe of gardeners—or are they obedient embodiments of hormones? These men move through the blasting white air of the landscape in necromantic choreographies seeking something unnamed but doing so with a crisp purposefulness until their movements squander themselves and break up into compelling but impotent little self-absorptions.

In fact, everything in the film is choreographed, or seems so. Simple walking, the movement of fingers, the motion one makes before speaking—all is heightened, stylized, and converted into a beautiful foreign body language one has not yet learned to read. The eponymous piano tuner Felisberto (César Saracho, an actor who resembles the fun-house mirror reflection of a Quay triplet) arrives at the behest of Droz under the pretext that the latter needs some doodads tweaked in his robots, but it is the preternatural tuner’s doppelgänger-like resemblance to the opera diva’s mourning husband that appeals to Droz most, since the big-eared dupe might prove useful in the doctor’s desperate plan to steal the singer’s heart for himself and warm it back to full life.

Shot in HD and wholly embracing the technology, Piano Tuner makes bold leaps into visual domains previously untrodden by filmmakers, even the Quays, but incorporates plenty of their animation and their trademark density of decor. Absolutely entrancing!!!

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