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The ghosts in the machines
A region 2 DVD review of THE PIANOTUNER OF EARTHQUAKES by Slarek
"These things never happen but are always."


There can be no fan anywhere of the cinema of the unusual who would not be instantly intrigued by a title like The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (this arrangement of the words and letters is correct). It has an almost random, cut-up quality that suggests a work that will at the very least flirt with the abstract. Knowing that is was made by The Brothers Quay, two of the most strikingly original of modern animators, only adds to the appeal, and for those familiar with their previous work it creates very specific expectations. The exact nature of these expectations will depend in part on whether you coming to the film via the Brothers' first venture into feature filmmaking, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. If you bypassed this and arrive directly from their animated shorts, you might not get what you expect.

The film opens in a darkened theatre, where beautiful opera singer Malvina van Stille has the serious hots for her composer Adolfo. But shortly into her performance she collapses and is pronounced dead by the imposing Dr. Emmanuel Droz, who instantly transports her body from the scene. Some time later she is revived on Droz's island with only a scant memory of her life as it was. As Droz prepares her for a very special performance of his own devising, a skilled piano tuner named Filesberto Fernandez, who is the double of Malvina's lost love, arrives on the island. Invited by Droz, he is asked to repair and fine tune a series of strange automata. He accepts the task, but becomes increasingly distracted by the haunting voice he hears singing at night.

The term 'dreamlike' is bandied about quite a bit, especially on this site (can't help it, I like those sort of movies), but if anybody's films deserve the label it's those of the Brothers Quay.* Their extraordinary animated shorts – Street of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988) and The Comb (1990) are prime examples – evoke a vivid sense of childhood nightmare and boast some of the most haunting imagery in modern animation. Their first feature surprised the hell out of me by being a largely live action piece, but its twisted reality and consistently gorgeous imagery was still recognisably the work of the Brothers. The difficulty for many was that the story was a little slight for a feature-length film and that is presentation occasionally bordered on the obscure. If you were of this view, then The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes is going to provide you with a few problems. You wouldn't be the only one – I've been surprised at just how negative much of the reaction to the film has been, the view being summed up concisely by the IMDB contributor who suggested that it was "beautiful to look at, difficult to enjoy." An interesting remark can be found in Philip French's review in The Observer, in which he suggests that "Those who like the film will be few, but they'll probably like it very much." That sounds like my cue.

As with Benjamenta, the strangeness of the location and its inhabitants is viewed primarily through the eyes of an outsider and communicated in part by his narrated thoughts. It has to be said that this element is less effective than it was in the earlier film, too often re-stating what has already been made visually evident rather than expanding on it. Some narrative and character elements have also been recycled here, the identically dressed gardeners and their ritualistic behaviour recalling Benjamenta's glum students, while Filesberto's night-time excursions, be they dreams or investigations, are similar to those undertaken by the curious Jakob in the earlier film.

Once again, the film has the feel of a dark fairy tale touched with gothic, beautifully realised through Nic Knowland's colour scope cinematography, Larry Sider's layered sound work, and the Quays' typically evocative production design, but again story almost always takes a back seat to atmosphere and suggestion, which is where the audience divide will set in. Now I can see both sides of the argument here. Plot development is leisurely at best, drifting from scene to scene in determinedly unhurried fashion, with characters carefully sketched rather than explored in any depth. But intermittently, the sometimes other-worldly melding of sound and imagery, of the abstract and the poetic, render this largely irrelevant. The opening ten minutes are a prime example, with Malvina's collapse and later revival in a cave dominated by an airborne whirlpool unfolding in hypnotic and unsettling fashion – if anything, it's the dialogue scenes that break the spell (the exception being Dr. Droz's ant story, which is somewhat literally realised later in the film).

At its least effective, the film occasionally comes close to stalling, but its best moments are startling in their originality and realisation. The various automata provide an opportunity for the Quays to integrate live action with their unique brand of animation, while the use of blue screen and reversed imagery give rise to a hauntingly realised sequence in which the gardeners move backwards through the woodland like animated mannequins. It's as vivid a realisation of dream imagery as I've seen all year.

Despite the emphasis on the surface detail of the characters rather than what lies beneath, the roles are all effectively cast. César Saracho's angular face and hesitant motions lend Filesberto an undeniably enigmatic quality, while Gottfried John (who played the Herr Benjamenta in the Quays' previous feature) nicely underplays the role of Dr. Droz, suggesting his power and obsession without ever slipping into melodrama. In an essentially supporting role, Assumpta Serna's smiling but faltering sexual confidence as Droz's assistant and (possibly ex-) lover comes the closest to suggesting a back-story of any real significance.

But it's the sound and the imagery, with its ability to both delight the senses and disturb the intellect, that stays with you and ultimately makes the film so intriguing: the sequences in which Malvina wraps a band around her knee or seems to have lost control of one of her hands; the distorted, semi-abstract close-ups of the mechanical workings of the automata; the stuttering dream involving a door whose handle suddenly sprouts spikes when approached. Best of all are the automata themselves, mechanical embodiments of the surrealist ethos, mismatching objects in deliciously creepy manner, from the grotesque, wood-seated mouth that is all teeth and tongue to the rowing boat operated by two disembodied porcelain hands. The machines also provide an almost throwaway moment that delivers one of the film's most intriguing questions – if you were robbed of your reflection, how, armed only with a cut-throat razor, would you shave?

sound and vision

It's a sign of how good video to film transfers are getting that despite having first seen the film in the cinema (front row, centre, as ever), it was not until I watched the extras on this DVD that I realised that the film was shot on hi-def digital video rather than 35mm. The decision was a practical one – the Quays have for three years been creating animation using digital cameras rather than film, and figured it would be easier to shoot on one format rather than try to match one to the other. Well it looked good on the big screen and it looks every bit as good here, especially considering how dimly some of the scenes are lit and graded. Detail is very good and sharpness impressive for the most part – some shots and sequences have a slight and deliberate softness to them. Black levels appear to be bang-on and contrast is very good – the bit rate on the transfer is consistently high.

Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are available, and good through the stereo is good the surround track is definitely the way to go. This track is very crisp and clear, with reasonable separation and some strong subwoofer work when bass notes are used in the sound effects or music (especially at the climax).

The menus, by the way, are very nicely in-keeping with the film and its principal setting.

extra features

An Interview with The Quay Brothers and scenarist Alan Passes (49:13) finds the Brothers chattier than I've ever seen them, openly discussing their early life and their move from art to film, the challenge of working with actors rather than puppets, shooting and post-producing on digital, the music score, and the structure and nature of the film itself. They also react to the level of criticism that has been aimed at the film, which appears to have caught them completely by surprise. Particularly interesting is the information provided on the genesis of PianoTuner, with Channel 4 imposing a series of conditions on possible funding, including that it be more accessible than Benjamenta, be of a more definable genre, that there would be dialogue rather than just monologues, and that it be in colour. Alan Passes chips in well when appropriate, such as the discussion on creating the script, though he also has a few things to say about negative audience and critical reaction to the film. The odd bit of behind-the-scenes footage plays over the interview, and is of interest.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:08) is anamorphic and scope and interesting for including some of the more adult-orientated (symbolic) imagery, if only briefly.

The Unused sequence: "Droz's Secret Flesh" (2:11) is in a variety of (non-anamorphic) ratios. Out of context with the scenes that would have surrounded it, it adds little to the film.

Image Gallery includes 17 stills from film. They are about half the screen size and look suspiciously like frame grabs.

The Quay Brothers Biography is very brief and includes a filmography.


Although it was never destined to find a wide audience, I was and remain still surprised at the amount of negative reaction to the Quay Brothers' second feature. It is partly due to this, I suspect, that our cinema screening did not attract a larger audience (we did OK, but...). Those who did attend reacted very favourably to what they'd seen – a friend of mine approached me quoting influences I hadn't even picked up on, from John Fowles to Svengali to The Tales of Hoffman, adding "I really enjoyed that. Very nice." Screenwriter Alan Passes suggests that the film benefits from multiple viewing and I would certainly agree with that. It's not a dazzler, at least as a whole, but there is a lot to admire and enjoy here, and I can't help feeling that too many are watching the film without really seeing it.

Artificial Eye's DVD looks and sounds good, and benefits from probably the most detailed interview I've yet seen with the Quays. If you already know and like the film then there are no problems here. If not then I'd definitely suggest giving it a chance. Remember Philip French's words – you might well find yourself one of the few who like it a lot.

* In the interview on this disc the Brothers suggest that the term 'dreamlike' is all wrong for this film. Sorry guys, but it works for me...

The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes

Germany / UK / France 2005
95 mins
Quay Brothers (Stephen and Timothy Quay)
Amira Casar
Gottfried John
Assumpta Serna
César Saracho

DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
subtitles .
Interview with directors and screenwriter
Unused sequence
Directors' Biography

Artificial Eye
release date
26 June 2006
review posted
26 June 2006

related reviews
The Quay Brothers Short Films 1979-2003
Institute Benjamenta

See all of Slarek's reviews