Dirs: The Brothers Quay.UK-Ger-Fr. 2005. 99mins.
A decade after theirdebut feature Institute Benjamenta (1994), Stephen and Timothy Quay havemade their second full-length film. As one might expect from film-makers widelyacknowledged as masters of stop-motion and miniaturisation, this is a richlydetailed affair. It is crammed full of literary, cinematic and fine artreferences. Individual set-pieces are often hugely inventive.
Sadly, though, as afull-length narrative feature, The Piano Tuner strikes an oddlydiscordant note. The Quays seem far less comfortable handling their real-lifeactors than they do their models and automata. They conjure up striking images,but don't appear to have the ability to thread them together into a meaningfulstory.
On the back of theirreputation as master craftsmen, and with the endorsement of such heavyweighttalents as Terry Gilliam (who exec-produces) The Piano Tuner is sure tosound a strong note at festivals. With its rich, dark (and occasionally murky)cinematography and exhaustively designed tableaux, it is a film which will playfar better on the big screen than on TV, but theatrical prospects look limited.
This is determinedlyesoteric fare which mainstream audiences may find daunting. Celluloid Dreamshas sold Piano Tuner relatively widely, but distributors will have tohit the keys very hard to make a din with anyone other than Quay devotees
The plot carries echoes ofeverything from Antonioni's L'Avventura to Nosferatu and Bluebeard'sCastle. A beautiful opera singer Malvina (Amira Casar) is seemingly killedand whisked off to a fantasy island ruled over by the malignant Dr Droz(Gottfried John.) She was due to be married, but Droz wants her for himself aspart of some fiendish plot to seek revenge on the opera world which rejectedhis music. He keeps her in a trance, occasionally waking her up to give her theopportunity to utter lines like "I'm neither in this world or the next. Tell mewho I am."
The piano tuner Filiberto(Cesar Sarachu) soon hoves into view, on assignment to repair Droz's strangecollection of automata. Filberto is the spitting image of Malvina's fiance andstirs memories and passions in her which not even Droz can repress. He comes upwith a plan to save her, but first he must thwart the dastardly doctor.
The pacing is sluggish, thedialogue clunky, and the performances are often eccentric. Gottfried John, somemorable as Franz Biberkopf's treacherous friend in Rainer Werner Fassbinder'sBerlin Alexanderplatz, brings little colour or passion to his role as theMephistopherlian villian.
Assumpta Sen appears to beplaying her part as Droz's housekeeper and former lover tongue in cheek. AmiraCasar, as the heroine treated as Droz's puppet, has as difficult and ultimatelythankless a role as the one she played in Catherine Breillat's L'Enfer.
All the cast membersstruggle to create believable flesh and blood characters against so stylisedand artificial a backdrop. There is little sense that the filmmakers are doinganything to help them. "I feel as if I am living in someone else'simagination," the piano tuner laments at one stage. His sense of alienation islikely to be shared by many viewers as they struggle to make sense of theQuays' mysterious world.
You could carve out somevery impressive shorts from the material assembled here. There arephantasmagoric seascapes with waves bobbing up and down in the way they did inold Melies silent shorts, eerie shots of a model woodsman with a bloody axe,and huge close-ups of clogs and flywheels which rekindle memories of the Quays'short, The Streets Of Crocodiles. What there isn't is any dynamism.
The plot is similar to thatof some of the old Val Lewton horror films at RKO (for instance, The Isle OfThe Dead or The Bodysnatcher.) Those films may have beenmelodramatic and hammy, but at least they had some oomph about them.
Koninck Studios PTE
Mediopolis Film and Fernsehproduktion
ARTE France Cinema
UK Film Council
Medienboard Berlin Brandenburgh
Drefa Media Holding
Tohokushinsha Film Corp
VCC Perfect Pictures