TIFF Report: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes Review
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.