TIFF Report: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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The most anticipated film of my day was, without a doubt, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes the dark, adult fairy tale shot dominantly in live action by acclaimed animators The Brothers Quay with Terry Gilliam on board as an executive producer. Not only was this film my most anticipated of the day but one of my most anticipated of the entire festival. My response to the film? It's not the big break through moment that many Brothers Quay fans were hoping for and it has some serious narrative flaws but it is absolutely one of the most visually arresting films you will ever see.

Drawing heavily on the tone of the surprisingly adult and sinister fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and based loosely on the novella The Invention of Morel - itself heavily drawing on The Island of Doctor Moreau - The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes tells the story of Malvina, a famous opera singer. Her angelic voice has drawn the attention of the villainous Dr. Droz, a man who seemingly has power over life and death through the use of his arcane machines, who wants her for his own. Long content to admire Malvina from afar Droz is stirred to action when she becomes engaged to marry the conductor of her opera company. He stages her death and whisks her away to his remote mountainous stronghold the night before her wedding. Droz plans a dark opera of his own around the voice of his newest and most prized possession, one in which she will be accompanied by music played by Droz's strange Automatons, seven bizarre, otherworldly machines. But before the show can go one the machines must be brought into flawless working order and perfect tune and for this job Droz employs the titular Tuner. Initially content to marvel at Droz's wondrous machines the Tuner slowly realizes that Malvina is being held against her will ...

With The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes the Brothers Quay have created a world immiediately and distinctly their own. Though they are best known for their animation work it is obvious that they know their way around live action cameras as well and the film is simply stunning to look at. Filled with a gentle soft focus glow as though shot through a thin layer of gauze the film is by turns dark and sinister, dreamlike, disorienting and as flawless as a classical painting. Though they are clearly kindred souls with a number of other film makers - Guy Maddin, Chris Marker, David Lynch and Terry Gilliam all came to mind at different times - their world is uniquely their own. The Brothers have learned a great many lessons from their animation work and they are all put to great use here. Forced perspectives, richly detailed miniatures, composite shots, reverse film, and stop motion elements are all fused into a remarkably cohesive whole. Every inch of every frame of this film has something spectacular to look at.

So, the visuals are a raging success. What of the story? This is where things begin to stumble a bit. The Brothers typically work in much shorter films - this is only their second feature - and they rely far too strongly on narrative techniques that owrk fine over a five or ten minute span but simply can't be sustained over feature length. The film is too reliant on voice over narration for vast swathes of exposition and when the characters do speak directly for themselves it too frequently feels as if they are speaking in code. As a result none of the characters really steps forward to give the film an emotional core. Between the slow pace, abstract characters and sometimes muddy plot - what exactly is Droz trying to accomplish with his opera, anyway? - the film becomes rather academic. The Brothers are clearly aiming for something archetypal, something Jungian, and though that goal seems to be continually on the edge of their grasp they never quite reach it.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a film that will sharply divide audiences. One segment - the larger segment, most likely - will find it too difficult to wrap their heads around and far too slow and simply struggle to stay awake. The other segment, however, will find it seductive and hypnotic. Regardless of which side of the line you fall on, however, this is a film that deserves to be seen and appreciated as a pure visual spectacle.

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JoshuaSeptember 9, 2005 11:31 PM

Reading this almost made me wet myself in anticipation. Adult/sophisticated fantasy has always been one of favorite genres (c'mon I saw almost every fantasy movie released after 1979 in the theater) and with the upcoming "Mirrormask&", "Corpse Bride&", the Del Toro movie, and now this? Phew...I don't know what this feeling is...could it be excitement about movies that are coming out? I feel woozy and need to sit down.

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 10, 2005 1:08 PM

It's a mind-trip all right, but sometime it gets a bit full of itself and the constant fade-out transitions are clunky.

NordSeptember 11, 2005 4:46 AM

It has the wonderful designation of being one of the few films I have ever walked out on, joining Wing Commander and National Treasure.

It was horrible, it was a boring Tool video. Maybe it's just me, but art for the sake of art annoys me.

I can't even say it was visually stunning cause in the end, it wasn't even that.

Not the way I wanted to kick off TIFF, hopefully Evil Aliens will clense my pallet tonight.


FSeptember 14, 2005 11:56 AM

Unfortunately, this film sucks. I kept trying to convince myself that it was a great "visual&" experience but in the end I had to admit that even the visuals were lacking. I prepared myself for some kind of visceral payoff that never came. Very little by way of animation here either. We don't get to see much of the "automatons&" which seem to be the focus of the film. Even the brothers didn't seem too confident in the film during the Q&A, although they might have been sleepy.

Tuan JimSeptember 30, 2006 8:20 AM

Any future information on a DVD release for this one? In any region?

Todd BrownOctober 1, 2006 10:30 AM

I need to double check, but I believe Capri has bought this for Canada.

Jonathan DogeyOctober 17, 2006 7:58 AM

The film is already on Region 2 DVD on ebay. You can get a copy for relatively little.

HenryOctober 29, 2006 3:15 PM

This is not a movie for people who do not know a great deal, and people who are not willing to think - the authors, whoever they are, made a great film, but not for people who do not like to work their brains - the Heros of the story are Dr. Droz, and Assumpta. In the end, Assumpta becomes Dr. Droz, as the assumption of the movie is that all enlightened people are spiritually one. The puppet is that part of Assumpta that was not quite enlightened, and the tree she cuts down represents all the unenlightenment in her life found in her friends and herself - when she finally becomes one with all the other enlightened people in the world (at the end of the movie), we see her looking in upon the lives of the piano tuner, and Malvina, who represent people who have tried to be enlightened, but gave up forever, and are now being used by the Droz to teach the world about the fact that it is being controlled and managed by a secret organization of Enlightened Masters who are one with each other completely. There is not even a slight hint of illogic in this movie, maybe that is why you might be having a hard time understanding it - I have yet to see a comment that even gets close to grasping the profound meaning of this movie - no one has a clue, and that is too bad - you would think that a professional critic would at least have some clue as to what the movie wants to say to the thinking world!

kozadJanuary 15, 2007 10:40 AM

In my opinion, Henry may be a little misquided in assigning such a limited view of the film's meaning. The movie is a masterpiece. Yes, it could have been better. We could say that about many masterpieces...maybe not Beethoven's Seventh or John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme,&" but works involving hundreds of people and millions of dollars have some incompletely realized visions...

In short, I was stunned by the movie. The Brothers Quay have created a world not our own...yet the predominant visual elements (and sound structures) and strange narrative arc describe who we are in a way no one else has done, ever. More masterpieces laying open the raw intracacies of our inner lives are sure to arise, but I am grateful for the sudden appearence of this one in my life.

Thanks, Quay and Quay.