The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

The Brothers Quay somehow make curiosity cabinets kind of boring.



Having adapted works by European authors Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz, the Brothers Quay—Stephen and Timothy by forename—are likely familiar with a strange aphorism from Franz Kafka's diary: "A cage went in search of a bird." In the case of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the cage is the remote forest villa of Dr. Emmanuel Droz and his eerie musical automatons, and the bird is Malvina van Stille, an opera singer whom the doctor murders on stage in front of her soon-to-be husband, Adolfo Blin, and then reanimates as a dead-alive performer in his own musical (re)production.


The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) is the Quays' first full-length film since their only other feature-length picture, 1995's Institute Benjamenta, a haunting, visually intricate, and symbol-heavy adaptation of Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten, about a young man being trained at a school for the future butlers of upper-class families. Best known for their stop-motion animation short films in the manner of Jan Svankmajer (Little Otik, Lunacy), the Quays' work is eccentric, dark, surreal, and possessed of a very European sensibility, though the identical twins were actually born in post-WWII Philly.


The piano tuner of the title is Don Felisberto Fernandez, an Adolfo lookalike whom the enigmatic doctor has enlisted to tune the mechanical yet ethereally inhabited automatons that will complement Malvina in her performance. This concept of automaton as being is reminiscent of the fluid dichotomy of art and nature that was frequently a theme of the 17th-century curiosity cabinets described in books like Wonders and the Order of Nature.


Explicit confirmation of the Quays' awareness of this subject is provided in a vivid monologue delivered by Dr. Droz on Megaloponera foetens. This foraging ant inhales a fungal spore that ultimately prompts it to climb to a great height, where it will die and have its brain eaten and nervous system infiltrated by the fungus, which then excretes a spike through the ant's head and rains down spores on the forest floor. The story will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which has an exhibit on the subject, or readers of the book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, which opens with a description of Megaloponera foetens and its fungal foe.


Despite its generally positive critical reception, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes will likely disappoint anyone who's enjoyed Institute Benjamenta or the Quays' animation work. Stretched over 99 minutes and lacking the literary foundation that Walser's novel gave to Institute Benjamenta, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is unable to sustain the dreamlike atmosphere it develops in its opening minutes, and soon devolves into tedium. Even its stylized images, which are initially striking, end up resembling a photo shoot for the sleeve of an Enya CD.


--Joshua Avram

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