Don Felisberto Fernandes, a piano tuner, arrives at the secluded villa of the malevolent Dr. Droz to find that there are no pianos. It seems Droz has hired him to tune a set of musical automata in preparation for some macabre final performance. The Quay Brothers’ latest film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, traces Felisberto’s efforts to understand Droz’s evil scheme. At night Felisberto is haunted by the sound of a wordless, yearning voice. What is this singing, he wonders—is it a dream? “Well, it was certainly beautiful,” he decides. Assunta, the housekeeper, assures him: “After a while, you get used to the confusion.”
Piano Tuner is the Quay Brothers’ second full-length, live action feature. Like their first—1994’s Institute Benjamenta—it plays like an animated film made with actors rather than puppets. Currently in limited release in theaters (including, in New York, Cinema Village), Piano Tuner is not so much a movie. The earlier term “moving picture” better captures Piano Tuner: a series of images tied loosely together by a narrative idea. The experience of watching a Quay Brothers film may be likened to dreaming, but it more closely approximates living in someone else’s dream. Like Felisberto (played by the wide-eyed Cesar Sarachu), you just have to get used to the confusion.
This isn’t a criticism since, after all, the Quays are not that interested in coherence. Though best known for their stop-action animation, they have also designed theatre and opera sets. Set design—creating a complete milieu in which a story may or may not unfold—is an apt metaphor for the Quays’ approach to filmmaking. In a 2001 interview, they explained, “We really believe that with animation we can create an alternate universe, and what we want to achieve with our films is an ‘objective’ alternate universe, not a dream or a nightmare but an autonomous or self-sufficient world, with its particular laws and lucidity … The same type of logic is found in the ballet, where there is no dialogue and everything is based on the language of gestures, the music, the lighting, and the sound.”
Given that the Quays aren’t interested in dialogue, one wishes they would offer less of it (as they do in their animation). In a film that doesn’t rely on spoken language, what words there are have to justify their inclusion. At times the Quays’ screenplay is obliquely provocative. “My touch, my ear, are no less sensitive for my being sighted,” Felisberto assures Dr. Droz, who had hoped his piano tuner would be blind. More often, the dialogue remains banal, especially Felisberto’s voiceovers. “So, no pianos to tune?” He wonders obviously. “Has the doctor brought me here under false pretenses?” Later he explains, “I accepted the challenge.” Not particularly offensive but also not particularly interesting, such extraneous dialogue can’t compare to the visual poetry the Quays create with their language of gestures.
There are superficial markers of a Quay Brothers film—the hollow-headed puppets, the shadows and the light—but their true signature is the gesture, the tantalizing image. They can send a single repeated image through a film like a gold thread through a tapestry, always part of the cloth, even when not seen, rising at moments to the surface and sparkling: the dancing screws in Street of Crocodiles (1986), the opening and closing drawers in The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984). In Institute Benjamenta, erasers clap, spraying dust, and sheets of mop-water skim across the floor like a shallow ocean. These gestures don’t move story along; they don’t reveal a character’s inner life or comment on theme. They function as a painting or photograph, to invite contemplation, to send our thoughts in new directions.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes has its own signature image, at the start of the film and repeated again towards the end: the knee of a bent leg, with a finger tracing circles around the knee again and again. What does it mean? Well, it was certainly beautiful.
Piano Tuner is gorgeous, a symphony in green and red: the emerald green that shows up in the opera singer Malvina’s scarf and again in the impossibly verdant pine trees that frame Felisberto’s face; the saturated turquoise of the rolling waves that lap against Droz’s estate; the velvety crimson of the villa interiors. And it is also literally a symphony, an organized harmony of sounds: a constant knocking, an incessant droning, the repeated strains of an aching, yearning voice, which breaks out of its fugue into a melody only when the end credits roll. Combine these colors and sounds with camera play, washed out lighting, fuzzy out-of-focus shots, and the shrouding of whole scenes in darkness. The strangest dream is not so disorienting as this.
The Quays talk a lot about the influence of Kafka and other Eastern European writers; The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer is an homage to the Czech animator by that name, and Street of Crocodiles adapts a story by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. Ultimately those films feel empty, as though the Quays thought they were taking part in an imagined generic Eastern European aesthetic. Thankfully, they explore new territory with Piano Tuner. A key reference point is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the plot is influenced by stories by Jules Verne and the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares. Their themes—animation and reanimation, the line between wakefulness and sleep, navigating confusion—remain the same. So does their curious unwillingness to delve into the many questions they raise.
All of the Quays’ films can be read as meditations on animation and puppetry. The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer is a series of lessons on animation from one puppet to another; Institute Benjamenta profiles a school for domestic servants learning how to move to a master’s commands. Piano Tuner revolves around Droz’s efforts to bring back to life the beautiful Malvina. What might it mean for two animators to make a film in which the villain is himself a re-animator? Apparently it doesn’t mean much. Droz’s motivations remain in the shadows; his character and all the others remain cartoons. Relying on sensory appeal, the film skates along on such a superficial level that it fails to exploit its significant potential. The Quays have said before that they don’t make films with any symbolic agenda: “This notion of trying to pin things down in terms of: ‘What is the story about, what are you doing?’ It doesn’t apply in music. In our films it’s the same thing.” There’s a difference between eschewing narrative or mimetic meaning, and eschewing meaning altogether.
Franz Werfel (writing in 1935) observed that film possesses a “unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural.” At their best, the Quay Brothers remind us of film’s unique possibilities. Like a ballet, Piano Tuner is an elaborate and lovely choreography to music of moving bodies and light. The world it creates is fairylike and marvelous. But no one could accuse it of being incomparably persuasive. It never quite takes you away.
SARA MAYEUX is a student of 20th-century history and sometime writer who lives in Brooklyn.