This inscrutable, overtly dreamlike fable is only the second live action feature from celebrated UK-based stop-motion animators (and identical twins) Stephen and Timothy Quay in ten years; their first, Institute Benjamenta, was poorly received by many critics, some of whom called it "legendarily boring". Personally, I loved Institute Benjamenta, so I was quite excited to see The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, despite a new volley of negative reviews.
It's a strange movie, about a piano tuner who is taken to a remote coastal enclave to fix some elaborate wind-up penny arcade machines for a creepy doctor, whose intentions are never completely clear but have something to do with a forced marriage. I think. Along the way, the piano tuner is pursued by the doctor's dominatrix servant (Assumpta Serna, still alluring in her late forties) and falls in love with an opera singer who may be dead, an amnesiac, or something else.
Those coming to this film expecting a coherent story and realistic characters are bound to be put off; the Quay Brothers are known for their own private lexicon of symbols and meaning. Instead, it's best suggested that one just watch the film and go along with the ride, as one does with a film like David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Even so, I can't call this a great film. For me, the biggest letdown was that the Quays obviously shot The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes digitally. (This was clear even while watching a projected 35mm print of the picture in a theatre.) Ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me, but so much of their work is about texture and lighting, and their animated shorts as well as Institute Benjamenta have an extraordinary visual depth to them. That depth is lost here, and it's a great loss. Also, much of the dialogue is so explicitly poetic and abstract that it will probably elicit giggles from some audience members - especially as the entire cast speaks English as a second language. (Accents galore!) Finally, the twins' trademark animation, gorgeous as it is, only appears in fits and starts.
But I would hate for quibbles like this to discourage the Quays from making more live action features. They have a unique voice, and there's a lot to like about The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, including its inexplicable yet nevertheless heartbreaking ending.