When I read synopses of this film before viewing, the story seemed straight forward enough. But then I watched it, experienced it... and since it is by The Quays, I should have known that there would be nothing straight forward about it. Although the film does indeed have a plot, and there are defined characters and situations, it all feels like a convoluted dream... and I wouldn't have it any other way. It is one of the things I love most about The Quay's work. (I have written about The Quays here and here.)
I don't feel it would be giving away too much to tell you that Dr. Droz, a sort of mad scientist/opera lover kidnaps an opera singer and takes her to his secluded island. He plans to make her perform a private concert for a select group of invitees. But before that can happen, the mad scientist must make sure that the seven automata (diorama boxes which are also musical instruments of a sort) scattered around the island are in perfect working condition. He invites a piano tuner to the island to service them all before the big concert. I can tell you all this because, as one is watching this diaphanous visual treat, one hardly considers the "reality" or "sense" of events that are clearly not meant to be taken literally. We are in the territory of metaphor, of fairy tale. The viewer is possessed by the breezy, dream logic and the stunning visuals. The Quays based the look of their film on the iconic painting "The Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin who described his own painting as “a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” The Brothers captured the texture perfectly. The chiaroscuro aspect of the lighting is also a feature in the film (in color this time as opposed to the black and white of The Brothers' first full-length live action film "Institute Benjamenta, Or This Dream People Call Human Life"), as is the decaying Spanish Baroque influence of the sets, a deliberate allusion to Latin American Magic Realism. And it was pleasant to see The Brothers' signature stop-motion animation and dolls mixed in with the live action. The cast are tasked with the difficult job of carrying such dream logic without much to do in the way of identifiable actions or objectives: kudos to César Sarachu, Gottfried John (who also appeared in "Institute Benjamenta"), Assumpta Serna, and Amira Casar, all of whom embody an attitude and a sense that fuels the fairy tale dream logic.
The Brothers' pacing is in no hurry here, and the film exudes a slow sleepiness that is hypnotizing. The result is akin to the stillness that Böcklin himself evoked. Pace and plot are beside the point. Like Peter Greenaway, the intention of The Quays here is to create a mood, a feeling, a cognitive assemblage, a blended color, a texture. There is little call for such artistry in film these days and thankfully Terry Gilliam (also no stranger to the scorn of mainstream cinema) attached his name as producer so "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" could get financed, made, and released.
Meanwhile, we are still waiting for The Quays to get financing for their adaptation of the Bruno Schulz novella SANATORIUM UNDER THE SIGN OF THE HOURGLASS. That will be something to see...
Recommend? If you are a Quay fan, YES. If you are a fan of art, YES. If you are interested in the art of cinema, YES.