The images in the Quay brothers' The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes have a dreamy immaculateness, as if the entire world of the film were shot through a beautiful, amber-hued snow globe, occasionally illuminated by sharp infusions of backlight. Every shot in the film has been meticulously dressed and fussed-over, and it's one of those rare examples of a completely original environment created for the screen. Then people start talking, and the snoozing soon commences. Disciples of the Czech stop-motion master Jan Svankmajer (Alice), the Quays built a formidable reputation as animators, with credits that include the highly regarded Street Of Crocodiles and the groundbreaking video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." But when they broke into live-action feature filmmaking with 1994's almost legendarily boring Institute Benjamenta, it was apparent that what worked in five-to-20-minute bursts couldn't be sustained at several times the length. Over time, what seemed suggestive at first finally trails off into obscurity.
Though set somewhere in the 18th century, Piano Tuner takes place in a hermetic, imaginary world, populated by characters who speak English as if it were a second language. Amira Casar stars as a ravishing opera singer whose plans to marry dashing suitor César Sarachu are cut tragically short. Murdered on stage and spirited away by Gottfried John, a nefarious doctor and inventor, Casar awakes an amnesiac at John's secluded beachfront villa. John revives her as the star of his planned "diabolical opera," for which he hires the title character (also played by Sarachu, but a different guy) to tune several bizarre devices scattered around his estate. In spite of a peculiar housekeeper (Assumpta Serna) who attempts to seduce Sarachu, he and Casar are naturally drawn together, even though Casar has no memory of his resemblance to her former lover.
Like many other things in the movie, the purpose of John's grand scheme is never really made clear, nor is the peculiar fact that Sarachu comes from a long line of immaculately conceived piano tuners. At a certain point, such intrigues start to lose their cachet, once it becomes clear that the Quays have manufactured their own set of meanings and symbols and don't really care to let the audience in on them. Perhaps the film will connect with those attuned to the Quays' allusive wavelength, much as a dog responds to a whistle. Others won't hear a thing.