The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes Review

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is the second live-action feature film from Philadelphia-born, UK resident animators The Quay Brothers, whose dark stop-motion puppet animation short features owe much to the European tradition of Jan Švankmajer. Although rather more accessible than Institute Benjamenta, the Brothers’ new film still has little to do with traditional narrative and regular filmmaking techniques, but animates surrealist inspired paintings and etchings with actors and sounds to create a dark, erotically-charged fantasy that provokes a subconscious reaction rather than providing a rational or linear narrative.

On the eve of her wedding to the conductor Adolfo Blin, the famous soprano Malvina von Stille (Amira Casar) collapses during a private recital, and is declared dead by Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John). A fervent admirer of the beautiful singer, Dr. Droz transports Malvina to his asylum, a dark, remote place called the Villa Azucena. The doctor is an alienist, a healer of broken minds, and there he sets about reviving the personality of Malvina, who is resurrected but remains in a catatonic state.

As part of her therapy, Droz intends to put on a performance of an opera, to which a select group of guests have been invited. The performance will make use of seven strange hydraulic automata that are scattered throughout the doctor’s estate, mechanical objects with musical properties. In order to recalibrate and synchronise the strange constructions, Droz hires a piano tuner, Don Felisberto Fernandez (César Saracho). Felisberto is unsure of the purpose of his being there, but Droz’s assistant Assumpta (Assumpta Serna) shows him a fresco that suggests a dark mysterious purpose. At nights, Felisberto is haunted by strange dreams and drawn to the veiled figure of Malvina, whose singing fills the night.

As the above description might suggest, The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes is something of a dark fantasy that has little connection with any kind of everyday reality. It doesn’t even exist on the level of a fable or fairytale with a moral message, since even the human interactions between characters rarely conform to normal roles or behaviour. Rather, it’s a film that explores sensations in a purely sensual rather than rational way, through image and textures, using light and shadow with sounds and rhythms that enchant and unsettle in equal measure. Filmed as if through a gauze veil, you feel rather than observe or rationalise scenes of dark dreams and enchantment, the camera flowing over the textures of folded silk in pale blue light that wraps the reclining form of the sleeping Malvina, and submit to the slow-motion in-reverse dreams of Felisberto as he prowls through the dark moonlit woods at night, trying to make sense of the howls, sighs and singing echoing in the night. Figures dip into and out of receding tides of water, and touches linger tantalisingly on drenched clothing.

Along with the sometimes disturbing and other times blatantly sexual imagery of the animated automata sequences reminiscent of the Quay Brothers’ Short Animation Films, the primary sensation that all this gives rise to is one of charged eroticism, particularly for dark, forbidden desires, and transgressive actions. Everywhere characters remain veiled, following and secretly observing each other, discovering things kept hidden in the dark. If I were inclined towards psychoanalysis, I would suspect that it is all to do with Dr. Droz’s sexual impotence. At nights the doctor’s assistant and former lover Assumpta dresses in leather, straps and veils, but is unable any longer to arouse him. It’s there also in the idea of raising the dead, where he hopes to be cured of his problem and consummate his passion for Malvina, suggested further in the image of the water flowing from the well in the fresco and of course in the ultimate aim of the doctor - giving nothing away, since the title obviously suggests it – to make the earth move.

Any attempt at rationalisation however is pointless and expressly against the principle of a dark fantasy which resists any sense of naturalism. In this respect, the rather stiffly arch, mannered and mangled delivery of the dialogue by a cast for whom English is the first language only of Casar, only serves to heighten the otherworldly and sensual qualities of this fascinating film.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.

The otherworldly look and feel is captured through the delicate, soft tones of the film – pale blues and sepia tones photographed as if through a film of fine gauze. Shot on High-Definition Digital Video, in a lot of hazy darkness obviously, this would be difficult to get across in a standard definition video transfer, but the image here is nevertheless impressively transferred. Perfectly stable throughout and with no marks or excessive grain, Artificial Eye’s DVD release, presented anamorphically at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, captures the tone of the film perfectly.

There are a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes for the film and the surround mix is clearly superior in this case. On both mixes, the dialogue is often delivered in low murmured tones and whispers, which are well rounded, but often – particularly when being spoken by non-English speakers – rather muffled and indistinct. This works much better when it is given over to the 5.1 centre channel, allowing the various other cries, noises, whirring and the music score, to be carries on the wider sound channels. It is most effective in this respect.

The film is English language, but captioned subtitles are included for the hard of hearing. Due to the delivery of the dialogue, I found myself referring to them occasionally to work out what was being said.

Making The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (49:15)
The Making Of takes the form of a very long interview with the Quay Brothers and their scenarist Alan Passes, with a few short clips of the filmmakers working on-set. Some information is provided on their background, on their influences and what has driven them to make animated and subsequently feature films. They compare the issues involved in working with actors instead of puppets, but how their way of making films is still very different from a traditional live-action feature. They try to explain some of their method and the underlying themes that lie behind the storyline.

Theatrical Trailer (1:09)
A short trailer, anamorphic and of fine quality, captures the tone and content of the film well, giving it a very Terry Gilliam feel.

Unused Sequence: ‘Droz’s Secret Flesh’ (2:12)
Using music, mood and the animation of a shoe, this scene extends one of the sequences of the film, and makes the sexual subtext much more explicit.

Image Gallery
17 stills are presented, quite grainy and in the same aspect ration as the film, so they appear to be straight captures from the feature.

Quay Brothers Biography
A brief biography and filmography covers the filmmakers’ work in advertising, film, theatre, opera and television.

You’ll no doubt find many critics and viewers bemoaning any sense of narrative structure or meaning in The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes or finding fault with the less than conventional acting and dialogue, but The Quay Brothers are working in the area of dark fantasy and mythology here, using purely sensorial means to capture another level of dreams, madness and lust and there should be nothing rational about such subject matter. That is achieved magnificently here, no doubt with limited means and budget, making use of the Brother’s trademark puppetry and animation, that not so much reveals anything as wraps it up in veils and darkness, leaving it suggestive for the individual to interpret and feel.

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