Wednesday, February 28, 2007
reviewed by Sharon Servilio
Stephen and Timothy Quay: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Washington premier at the National Gallery
The Quay Brothers’ second feature-length live-action film was released in 2005, but only just arrived in D.C. on February 25 at the National Gallery of Art. The feature was preceded by a screening of their 1986 animated short “The Street of Crocodiles,” which provided a good introduction to the directors’ work. It showcases their elaborate visuals: predominantly gray, decaying sets occasionally disrupted by a brilliant splash of color. The camera moves in unusual ways, and the transition between shots often involves clever visual juxtapositions. Both puppets and objects, such as screws, are animated in an intricate choreography of light, sound, and movement.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes involves very little animation, which is used only to propel the “automatons,” creations of a mad doctor who lives on a secluded villa somewhere in Europe in the nineteenth century, practicing questionable psychiatry and amateur opera direction. He is joined there by Malvina, an opera singer whom he has kidnapped from her former life, and Felisberto Fernandez, a piano tuner hired to tune the automatons, which not only house elaborate animatronic puppets but also provide the music for the doctor’s grand opera. Here’s where it gets tricky: in a former existence Felisberto was Malvina’s lover, Adolfo, but it seems that he and the nearly catatonic girl only remember this deep in their subconscious. Also present is the doctor’s housekeeper Assumpta, the most grounded of the characters but not without her own eccentricities.
Throughout the film, it is usually impossible to tell dream from waking and past from present. In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it plays with our concept of time. In this world, time does not move in a rational, chronological fashion; rather, it is more circular, presenting countless instances of déjà vu and events that occur in multiplicity. When Felisberto first sets foot in the doctor’s villa, he sees a fresco painted long ago, commemorating an earthquake. Assumpta informs him that the three figures in the painting are Dr. Droz, herself, and impossibly, Felisberto.
A more dramatic example of déjà vu comes when the opening scene is reenacted at the end of the movie. In the former, Malvina performs an opera for Adolfo on the night before their wedding. From a balcony, the jealous doctor wills her dead; back at his villa he revives her, albeit to a phantom-like existence. He wants her voice for his grand opera, which turns out to be a reenactment of that tragic night. Felisberto is roped into playing the part of Adolfo (his alternate self) and rather than a reenactment this seems to be a repetition of events, with the entire opera cast playing themselves.
Another doubling of events begins when Felisberto is tuning one of the automatons. He is shocked to see his own face and hear his own voice inside it—he exclaims that the doctor has “captured my whistle and my reflection!” It seems that in the Quays’ alternate universe these machines are a creepy, archaic version of the television. The machine’s ability to record is seen as trapping or stealing. Later, in the final opera scene, Adolfo is in the audience, unaware of what he is about to see. When he recognizes what is happening, he walks up to the clear screen that stands between himself and the performers (an archaic, alternate movie screen?). He comes face to face with Felisberto and is shocked to recognize himself, echoing the earlier scene with the automaton. As in the previous scene, the man behind the screen is trapped, this time trapped in a memory, doomed to repeat his fate. This doubling effect becomes a tripling when we become aware that we are one more step back watching these events unfold on our own movie screen.
In the final scene of the film, Felisberto and Malvina are shown trapped inside an automaton, reliving an earlier, seconds-long exchange like a broken record, doomed to replay this moment for all eternity.
The directors’ choices emphasize the dreamlike quality of this world. Lush visuals make its strange beauty fully believable, and mysterious editing leaves us wondering what the characters can or cannot see, what they do or do not remember. One choice that seemed a bit jarring was the melodramatic dialogue and the swelling score reminiscent of old Hollywood movie soundtracks. This decision invites a comparison to Terry Gilliam, who was on board as the executive producer of Piano Tuner. Gilliam plays with similar incongruousness with the nostalgic music and dream sequences in Brazil, as well as the banal, soap opera quality of the young girl’s fantasies in Tideland. Perhaps the Quays wanted poke a hole in their otherwise airtight alternate universe, to suggest that the boundaries between that distant world and our own are not so rigid, and that the two are more similar than they appear.
Neither too long and boring nor too forcefully narrative, as some suggest, this film succeeds in presenting a multiplicity of layers and meanings, leaving audiences with much to speculate and ponder after viewing it.