FEATURING: César Sarachu, , Amira Casar, Assumpta Serna

PLOT: A doctor brings a piano tuner to his remote asylum to prepare automata for an opera he is staging for the benefit of a beautiful, nearly comatose patient who was once a singer.

Still from Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The general consensus is that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is one of the weakest of the Quay Brothers‘ cinematic efforts; on the other hand, there is no question that this fairy-tale of dreams, madness and opera is one of their very weirdest.

COMMENTS: “After a while, you get used to the confusion,” the housekeeper tells the piano tuner, as she explains that they call the silent men who are always scurrying around in the background of Dr. Droz’s estate “gardeners,” although they are really patients. Of course, the declaration is actually meant as a reassurance for the audience—but by the time the housekeeper drops that line, thirty minutes in, confusion-averse viewers will have already fled in terror. Dr. Droz has either killed and resurrected, or simply abducted, an opera diva, and is keeping her on his private island, where Alpine architeture mixes with tropical flora. The doctor needs a legendary piano tuner, who also happens to be  dead ringer for the singer’s lost love, to fix his seven automata, and to take part in an elaborate opera he is staging. The piano tuner flirts with the seductive housekeeper until the beautiful mute patient catches his eye. Each night, he has a dream, which is the Quay brothers’ excuse to indulge in the types of bizarre fantasy sequences that they made famous in their short films (although here with only minimal stop-motion animation). We see grotesque singing teeth, boats piloted by disembodied hands, and scenes where everyone moves backwards. We soon strike a rhythm of dreams interrupted by dialogues between the tuner and the housekeeper or doctor, which explain very little of what is ultimately going on on the island. Instead, the doctor likes to tell little stories about fungi that infect the brains of ants and eventually form spikes which bursts through the insects’ heads to release spores.

Piano Tuner is a stylistically overstuffed film. That is both a strength and a weakness. It’s one of those movies that looks like the filmmakers suspected they were never going to get another chance to work with a budget like this again, and felt pressed to get all their grandiose ideas up on screen while they had the opportunity. Individual frames of the film look like they come from paintings or drawings, but from a very eclectic museum: some scenes exhibit the swarthy classicism of a Carvaggio, others look like they come out of a medieval woodcutting, while still others like storybook illustrations from a Grimm fairy tale. There are luminous grottoes, ghostly animations, and distorting lenses. Much of the film features people and objects half hidden in shadows, making them as difficult to make out as the story is. The overall intent is to force us to give up on trying to process the narrative and imagery in the conventional sense, and simply submit to its beauty.

The Quay Brothers explained that, as a condition of funding, Film 4 demanded that they make a more “accessible” movie than their previous effort, Institute Benjamenta. Other than shooting the film in color, it’s hard to see how Piano Tuner could ever meet that standard. Terry Gilliam came in as executive producer to save the project; his name and reputation allowed the Quays to raise the remainder of the money they needed to film their outrageously odd visions.


“…the most strangely and subtly variegated march-past of Love’s delirious mechanisms ever committed to film… Absolutely entrancing!”–Guy Maddin, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who described it as containing “beautiful dreamlike imagery and some all too short sequences of the Quay’s miniature automata.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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