Plot Outline: Dark fairytale about a demonic doctor who abducts a beautiful opera singer with designs on transforming her into a mechanical nightingale.
To watch The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is to enter the fabulist universe of the Brothers Quay, as unique and arcane as any imaginable. These identical twins have made some of the most original films of the last two decades, including Street of Crocodiles, selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time.
Here, the goal was to make a poetic science fiction film inspired by the novella “The Invention of Morel” by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, although the final product bears closer resemblance to Jules Verne’s “Le Château des Carpates.” The story concerns Malvina (Amira Casar), a famous opera singer abducted on the eve of her wedding by the obsessive Dr. Droz (Gottfried John), who takes her away to the Carpathian Mountains. An innocent piano tuner (Cesar Sarachu) is summoned to the mad Droz’s secluded villa to service his strange musical automatons. When he learns of the doctor’s plans to stage a “diabolical opera,” he sets out to save the beautiful Malvina.
The scene is set by a quote from ancient Roman historian Sallust: “These things never happen but are always.” What follows is a magical treat full of the brilliant images for which the Quays are justly lauded. Moving from animated shorts to live-action features, their films have become more complex; animation is still present, with the Quays describing the startling, novel synthesis as “having live actors walk around puppet sets.” This film is haunted by the crazed doctor’s toylike mechanical creations. Visual references abound – in particular Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Island of the Dead” – and the brothers also cite Antonioni and Magritte. Music here is crucial, as Droz is a failed opera composer, and the Quays have assembled an hypnotic soundscape that mixes elements of Vivaldi with music from composer Trevor Duncan, whose work was used in Chris Marker’s La Jetée.
The end result is an evocative dream, part fairytale and part nightmare. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a daring trip into a world half-recognized and half-remembered, but impossible to forget.
– Piers Handling