The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Nocturna Artificialia
By Leo Goldsmith

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Dir. Quay Brothers, Germany / U.K. / France, Zeitgeist Films

Arnold Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” tucked behind a piece of sculpture and a drowsy security guard in an obscure corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gallery of Central European art, is a painting that is not only difficult to find but also difficult to see. Difficult to find, perhaps only relative to other pieces of art in one of the largest art museums in the world (the always modish Monets prove a distraction at the other end of the gallery); difficult to see thanks to its rather awkward placement and the patina of dirt, smoke, and varnish yellowing that has settled over it in the century and a quarter since it was painted. But even in its original state, the painting seems to have been intended to test the viewer’s vision, with its sharp contrast of bright amber rockfaces around the outside and dark, impenetrable cypresses at its center.

This makes Böcklin’s work an appropriate point of departure for the Brothers Quay and particularly for their new film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Not only are the Quays’ films invariably marked by their fascinations with all things outdated, obtuse, esoteric, and unfashionable (like, for example, 19th-century symbolist painting), their imagery is also often difficult to penetrate: exquisitely detailed, but difficult to grasp hold of, confusing in scale and physical orientation, employing an extremely shallow depth of field, and always obscured by dust, molds, and other corrosions. Like the painting, the Quays’ films challenge the eye with an uncanny command of cinematography, special effects, and mise-en-scene that is (as is said somewhere in their new film) “almost frightening in its subtlety.” This visual intensity and its dense, multiple symbolic substrata trace the film’s complex lineage back to a work that has already served as a source of fascination for Rachmaninoff, Val Lewton, and Adolf Hitler.

At its surface level, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes retains the topography of Böcklin’s painting. The setting of the film, the secluded compound and asylum of the sinister Dr. Emmanuel Droz, very much resembles the painting’s craggy, sunbaked cliffs and shadowy, foreboding cypresses (themselves associated with Hades in Greek mythology). To this remote location, Droz, an alienist (“a healer of broken minds”) and amateur composer, has secreted the undead body of the beautiful opera singer, Malvina van Stille, whom he mysteriously murdered on the eve of her wedding, to Adolfo Blin, a celebrated composer. With the collection of seven musical, water-powered automata he has constructed and Malvina in his clutches, Droz schemes a grand performance of his magnum opus, an epically perverse operatic work that will shake to its foundations the musical establishment that has previously rejected him. In preparation, however, his automata must be tuned, and so Droz summons to his island an unsuspecting Portuguese piano tuner, Don Felisberto Fernandez, who not unpredictably bears a close resemblance to Malvina’s former fiancé, Adolfo Blin.

The basic plot of the new film has a great deal in common with that of the Quays’ first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (based on the novella, Jakob von Gunten, by the turn-of-the-century Swiss writer Robert Walser), and seems to transpose much of the prior film’s story from a wintry Central European forest to a hazy, indistinct Mediterranean location. In the first film, a similarly unsuspecting character, Jakob, enters a school for butlers, where he is subject to the strange, repetitive, and dehumanizing training of Herr Benjamenta (played, like Dr. Droz, by the inimitably creepy Gottfried John) and the overt sexual advances of his instructor’s disturbed, yet domineering sister. In the new film, Dr. Droz’s patients (known euphemistically as “The Gardeners”) undergo pointless and mechanical exercises similar to those of the Institute’s student butlers, but the hero, Felisberto, remains largely exempt. Though benefiting from similar gropings and suggestive glances from Dr. Droz’s assistant (and sometime BDSM partner) Assumpta, the piano tuner’s role seems at first more akin to that of the hero of a fairy tale, wandering into an ogre’s lair to valiantly save an imprisoned princess. But as the tale progresses and the contours of Dr. Droz’s plans become more clearly discernible, it’s increasingly apparent that even this heroic rescue effort is to be incorporated into Droz’s grand design as a fixture of his vast, musical tableau vivant.

Repetition, mirroring, and reanimation—these have long been the Quays’ chief preoccupations, even pathologies, and these themes figure here with full force, drawing upon a deep vein of esoteric references, historical arcana, and apocryphal science. Each detail seems to fit into a baroque pattern as daunting in its intricacy and frightening in its subtlety as Dr. Droz’s constructs. The repetitive drones on the soundtrack create an endless, queasy sensation, leavened by the use of a glass harmonica, a reference to its inventor (and, for the Quays, a fellow Pennsylvanian), Benjamin Franklin. Operating on the same principal and emitting the same eerie tones as fingers running along the rim of a wine-glass, this musical instrument was made of a set of differently sized, rotating glass bowls, arranged horizontally on a spindle and half-submerged in water, and was fashionable for a brief time in the 18th century until conjecture spread that its ethereal music would cause listeners to go insane. Similarly maddening is the film’s oft-repeated references to the so-called stink ant of Cameroon (or Megaloponera foetens), one of the artificial natural wonders on display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. This large ant— “one of the very few to produce a cry audible to the human ear,” according to the museum’s program—is prone to being seduced by inhaling a specific kind of spore, which eats at the ant’s brain and compels it to climb a plant to a prescribed height. Once attaining this height, the brain-fungus forms a spiked protrusion that bursts through the head of the ant, killing the insect and excreting that same brain-rotting spore, which in turn ensnares other ants of the species.

Such are the obsessions of the Brothers Quay that references of this kind, blurring the lines between the natural and artificial worlds, are commonplace, almost offhand. Even Droz’s name is a reference to the (again) Swiss watch- and automata-maker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, whose mechanical constructs entertained royalty with their ability to write, draw, and play music. In the film, the Quays’ Dr. Droz has constructed somewhat less innocent automata as a series of highly detailed tableaux vivants, which are rendered in the Quays’ trademark stop-motion animation: the Woodcutter, with the deformed, watchful face of a broken doll, doomed to repeat the same cycle of chopping first into a tree, then into his leg, and then bleeding into a nearby pool; a rowboat traversing a silvery blue sea, navigated by disembodied hands; a severed finger, wetted by a brush, emitting a familiar whine as it circles the rim of a glass. The Quays’ use of these objects, and their attention to the detail that surrounds them, is fetishistic in the extreme, placing them at a level that is not simply equal to the live-action (and, occasionally digital) parts of the film’s universe but also deeply embedded within it. Stop-motion’s uncanny movement and enactment of interminable, mechanistic rituals even contaminates the world of the actors, who themselves often deliver curiously stiff performances, with dense, symbolic dialogue. Their movements suggest those of puppets, enhanced by the use of camera tricks (such as sequences whose motion is reversed) and a seamless integration of media that confounds the eye’s sense of the scale of objects, models, and sets in relation to one another.

The endless, unsettling repetition and referentiality, arduous visual trials, and near-totemistic attention to detail make the Quay Brothers and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes distinct oddities in the landscape of contemporary cinema. Pretentious, preposterous, and precious, they represent a kind of self-serious vision that is unfashionable indeed—stiff, stagy, and unyielding almost to the extent of self-parody. Unlike their compatriot Guy Maddin, they seem completely committed to a film-style almost wholly their own, conversant only with relatively obscure Eastern European animators, like Karel Zeman, Jiri Trnka, Bretislav Pojar, Jan Svankmajer, and Walerian Borowczyk. And unlike the executive producer of this film, Terry Gilliam, they seem utterly immune to the encroachment of meddlesome studio executives, or are at least able to bend them to their own wills and thereby to navigate the treacherous seas of international film distribution. Hopefully, this method will keep their dusty atelier unviolated by intruders, and their endlessly refractive universe hermetic and intact.