It was serendipitous that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the new movie by the Brothers Quay, premiered in London the same week in February as a much-touted Tate Britain exhibition titled “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination.” The relentless pacing of most current movies, so-called art house and genre alike, does not prepare a modern moviegoer for the Quays’ unfamiliar storytelling rhythms, their puzzling digressions and (to some) maddeningly disconnected narratives. But the Tate’s “Phantasmagoria” room, with its recreation of the fantastical visions of eighteenth-century magic-lantern shows, was a perfect decompression chamber for the film.
Phantasmagoria is Quay country.
Timothy and Stephen Quay, American avant garde filmmakers who have made England their home since the 1970s, aren’t really goths, old or new. Their work doesn’t aim to inspire shock or horror. Nor is it surreal, though it is often labeled so and draws considerable inspiration from that school (most notably, in Piano Tuner, automata are blood relations, to put it one way, of the mad inventor Canterel’s allegorical machines in Raymond Roussel’s novel Locus Solus). It’s not postmodern, either. The Quays’ sensibility is, rather, deeply immersed in Romantic-Symbolist imagery, the still lake waters of Arnold Böcklin’s painting Island of the Dead that dominates Piano Tuner’s last scenes.
At first glance, the creative arc the Brothers Q have traversed in their career shows the kind of quantifiable progress pleasing to any Social Darwinist of the arts. Starting with very short animated puppetry films—vignettes in the spirit of the Czech master Jan Svankmajer—they moved to longer animation in the notable Street of Crocodiles (1986), from the book of stories of the same name by the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, then to their first feature film (with real human actors!), Institute Benjamenta (1995), based on Robert Walser’s novella of abjection set in a school for servants. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the Quays’ second feature film, is their first to be shot in color—the muted, dreamy, diffuse watercolors of a submerged world. It’s also (despite all the overlays, references, and stated debts to Verne and Hoffmann) their first “stand-alone” script. And it is a love story, not the Brothers’ usual territory at all.
So do we find, then, in the manner of certain writers in the Quays’ adopted country who have transitioned from minor-key gothic to “big,” socially engaged novels, that with the wider canvas comes the long-awaited move out of the shadows into the sunlight of mainstream human concerns? Alas, like Blake and other true Romantic originals, the Brothers Quay are not likely to seek such easy redemption, and the official label “Accessible” will not be stamped on their beautiful new film. (After dismissive reviews, it lasted a meager two weeks in London.) As their venue expands, the Brothers’ sensibility remains steadfastly unchanged, and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is perhaps the purest expression of their grand, defiantly “minor” project: mapping and remapping the claustrophobic world of the doomed Romantic hero, the sorrowful young Werther who never quite succeeds in breaking out of the womb of his own creative fantasies.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes unfolds as a series of overlapping tableaux vivants in which a story, sad and gentle, gradually surfaces. On the eve of her wedding to her accompanist Adolfo (César Saracho), the opera singer Malvina (Amira Casar) is murdered by a mysterious admirer, Professor Droz (Gottfried John). The evil doctor spirits away her body and revives it into a sort of half-life at his secluded island villa, managed by the seductive housekeeper Assumpta (Assumpta Serna). Wandering around the wonderfully stylized island set (think Max Ernst meets The Island of Dr. Moreau), constructed by the Brothers when budgetary problems prevented them from shooting in a real villa in Portugal, are the doctor’s seemingly lobotomized male patients, the “gardeners,” performing sundry synchronized tasks. When the piano tuner Felisberto (also played by César Saracho, a doubling of roles that references the Quays’ real-life identical twinship) is brought to the island to tune up the professor’s seven hydraulically operated automata-cum–musical instruments, he falls in love with the somnambulant Malvina and the interrupted romance seems about to begin anew.
Marina Warner has noted the common thread uniting Piano Tuner with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm: all feature feckless young heroes romantically or sexually bound to a dead woman who in mythic terms is the queen of the underworld. The three films redefine, each in its own way, the classic folktale task facing their high-strung, sensitive protagonists (whose existential condition is perfectly expressed by the German word Luftmensch, literally “man aloft”): they must use brute force to escape from the underworld (known during the twentieth century as the “mother complex”) and set their feet firmly on the ground before they can gain their manhood, and a flesh-and-blood woman, in the real world.
It’s fair to say that Burton, Gilliam (who executive-produced Piano Tuner), and the Quays all feel a bit ambivalent about this triumphalist storyline.
The Corpse Bride’s neurasthenic hero, Victor, is freely helped by the Bride and the other denizens of the Land of the Dead to be reunited with his real-world fiancée. But moviegoers carry away a lingering sense that the dead reside in a livelier and far more colorful place than the drab Victorian industrial town he returns to.
In The Brothers Grimm the five-hundred-year-old hag queen is defeated, the abducted village girls are restored to life, and the woodsman’s daughter is attached to one, and then the other, brother—but they abandon her to carry on their bachelor adventures even as a fragment of mirror holding the queen’s glaring eye continues to hover over the proceedings, suggesting that her power is far from broken. This ambiguity of outcome, vis-à-vis the mother complex, is pure Gilliam.
The Brothers Quay take all this a step forward—or backward, depending on your point of view. Deliberately thwarting our expectations, Felisberto doesn’t succeed in freeing either Malvina or himself from the underworld. The lovers end up trapped in a jerky, repeating film clip inside the sixth automaton, a miniature stage behind glass (best described as a cross between a fish tank and an eighteenth-century large-screen television set) that is a microcosm of the island. Defying the laws of fairy-tale logic but holding true to the deep ethos of German Romanticism, the Quays keep their hero and his true love hermetically imprisoned inside the imagination of the human creator.
In May the Brothers Quay delivered the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Marc Davis lecture on animation to a sold-out crowd of movie industry aficionados. Flanked on either side of the stage by identical golem-size golden Oscars, the twins likened their aesthetics to Surrealist artist-writer Leonora Carrington’s dictum: “one eye plunged into the telescope, the other into the microscope.” The Quays’ earlier work did lean more to the Surrealist side of the equation—playful, nonlinear, and affectless. But if we consider Surrealism the head and Expressionism (out of Symbolism and Romanticism) the beating heart of early-twentieth-century literary-visual art movements, Piano Tuner is nothing but pure Expressionism. The Quays’ best and most satisfying work to date, its enigmatic narrative is held together by the underlying emotional coherence of poignant yearning—enhanced by the late Trevor Duncan’s haunting music, with interludes composed by Christopher Slaski—even as it dispenses with the cathartic “turn” of conventional dramatic structure. Though an earthquake destroys the villa, no similar internal upheaval is strong enough to shake the lovers free of their hypnotic confinement.
To appreciate the subtle and intricate accomplishment of this film—and comprehend the ways in which “minor” can actually be major—you must suspend your craving for a galloping plot neatly resolved, hold hands with Timothy and Stephen Quay, and leap through the reflective surface of Böcklin’s lake into its murky depths. If at all possible, you should try to do this at the theater (Piano Tuner will open in the U.S. in late November), rather than at home with a DVD player, because many of the subtle, painterly, and wondrously crafted visual touches are harder to discern on the small screen. (In what must surely have been a bittersweet moment for the Quays, the film won first prize for Special Effects at the 2005 Sitges film festival, an honor usually reserved for mind-numbing galactic sagas with budgets in the hundreds of millions.)
Take the plunge wholeheartedly and you just might find yourself surfacing in a mysteriously altered state of mind. You might find your aesthetic register permanently set to the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries instead of the modernist/postmodernist prairie land of the century just past.
What then? Then, like Felisberto and Malvina, you might have to learn how to live in that mythic territory, too—where, in the words of the Roman historian Sallust that the Quays chose for their film’s epigram, “Things never happen, but are always.” I can think of worse outcomes.