Wednesday, 18 July 2007

review: the piano tuner of earthquakes (the brothers quay, 2005)

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is my first lengthy exposure to the work of the Brothers Quay- the other being the brief yet brilliant hospital sequence in Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002).

I will first make a brave attempt at a brief synopsis:

This bizarre and beautiful film takes us through a progressively complex cluster of implied events and obscure intentions and relationships. The nightmarish fairy tale begins with the calculated abduction of the beautiful opera singer Malvina who is feigned dead and resurrected by the sinister Dr.Droz within the grounds of his secluded estate. While she haunts the estate like a mourning ghostly lover and waits for the manipulative hand of Droz to fit her into his opera of human puppets, a naive piano tuner named Felisberto is recruited to service Droz's mysterious musical automatons. Following a mysterious series of disjointed happenings, we follow Felisberto's growing passion for Malvina, his manipulation by the demonic Droz and the web of intrigue which forms itself around the Droz-Malvina-Felisberto love triangle and the sensuous and attention-starved housekeeper Assumpta.

And now a brave attempt at a review which may do it justice:

The film, as is often noted of their work in general, displays more than a passing debt to the work of that major name in stop-motion, Jan Svankmajer. However, although they appear to retain the disjointed subjectivity of the Svankmajerian vision, the directors here offer a different approach to the often obsessive-compulsive and quasi-solipsistic repetition of Svankmajer's work (not meant to be a negative description of his work on my behalf by the way).

The film in fact carries itself through a sensuous cloud of emotion with a gracefully slow phosphorescent air, retaining a sense of dark Romanticism. The film is, I find, blatantly unafraid of emotion, proposing a sound design which often intentionally privileges lurking rumblings and a swelling lover's score over the dialogue. The obscuring of dialogue and the disjointed editing increase the sense of subjective experience, continuously frustrating any straightforward form of understanding narrative events.

Although one may seek a full, concrete synopsis of the narrative on the official (sub)site, any attempt to pin down events into a clear and linear plot-line ignores the way in which meaning within the film is built upon thematic imagery rather than narrative.

Svankmajer does not appear to be the only influence however. Personally, I found that most of the pleasure derived from the film has much to do with my hunch that this dark fairy tale appears to be a hauntingly beautiful attempt to raise the ghosts of influence which surround the history of cinema. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes in fact appears to rely on its self-conscious debt to the various literary and cinematic influences upon which it rests its major thematic motifs.

The bleak romantic-gothic legacy located within the Edwardian and Victorian short mystery/ghost story ring throughout the film through the naive Felisberto's objective scientific voice-over, which slowly descends into ever-more hysterical fragments of memory.

German Expressionism supplies yet another rich source for the film, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920): the repeated references to the forced subjugation of the beautiful somnambulist Malvina and the implication that Felisberto may or may not be one of Dr.Droz's mental patients. The looming presence of a precise and calculating mechanical occultism--often suggested by the sudden inter-cutting of stop-motion levers and Droz’s grotesque automatons--also emphasises the film's debt to the German Expressionist classics.

Playing itself out in murky mirror-like reflections and highly stylized sets, the film also reworks the angular distortion and themes regarding authority of the early influential movement by hiding its characters under the greenish haze of the cinematography and subtly hinting at the sinister, controlling hand of Droz.

Admittedly, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes will not be to everyone's taste (Daniel and I in fact had to agree to disagree on this one)...its art house-style delivery of script and its bizarre and murky air is likely to be unpalatable to many, while probably being heaven-sent for those who are fans of films which continue to experiment with the art of stop-motion and unconventional modes of story-telling.

Personally, I find that the sense of mystery and willingness to display glowing, subjective emotion make this somewhat unusual experiment one that lingers with the mind, containing a conglomeration of elements from those films which had me hooked onto certain bizarrely fascinating works of cinema in the first place.


Robert said...

Yeah loads of people think that Svankmajer is an influence on the Brothers Quay and there is but not as great as is thought to be.

I have all their collected short films and some music videos that they did and you can see Mythology , Czech Culture ( well svankmajer was from Prague) Avant Garde composers and the cabinet of Dr. Caligari all play a bigger role.

Lara said...

yes, I think the film is rooted in German often projects perceptual distortion through the use of refracted shards of light...

I'm sorry, did that sound robotic? How fitting, in a way...

Daniel Vella said...

Great review, though as you said I completely disagree.

I found the film, on a personal level, to be too mechanical in its treatment of characters and too wilfully obscure, and it left me completely cold. There's no denying its visual beauty, however, and you raise good points about it. It's just not my cup of tea (except I hate tea, so maybe it is)...

Lara said...

The mechanical air is, I feel, appropriate. It emphasises the sense of characters as puppets manipulated by Droz...It didn't leave me cold, the fragments when the cinematography becomes saturated by heavenly looking light or sunlight suggest that despite his plan Droz cannot subjugate love to pre-destination....although they die, Felisberto and Malvina still find a kind of peace together since Droz's opera never comes to a ends before it ends, before he can destroy the love they feel outside his stage.