In their first live-action feature film in 11 years, the Brothers Quay plumb the mines of well-worn hoary horror to arrive with a new feature that is brilliant in its style but empty in its substance.
Set somewhere in Europe in the 19th century, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” finds mad Dr. Emmanuel Droz in obsessional love with the soprano Malvina. He somehow manages to kill her during a performance and then snatch her away from her dull lover Adolfo. Dr. Droz spirits Malvina’s body to his remote island castle, where he brings her back to life. But it’s not much of a life, as Dr. Droz isn’t exactly Dr. McDreamy – and his mania for creating life-sized automatons is more than a bit creepy. But the arrival of the piano tuner Felisberto at the doc’s castle could mean an escape for Malvina – either that or perpetual imprisonment for her and the hapless Felisberto.
The film goes riotously go overboard in creating a lush production (complete with intelligent CGI effects and haunting camerawork) that reconfirms their standing as being among the most visually imaginative filmmakers.
If this was a silent movie, it might be a new classic. Sadly, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” has some of the worst sound design imaginable. Dialogue is either inaudible or the actors are off-screen when they whisper their lines. It appears much of the movie was dubbed in post-production, and none too expertly at that. This creates a jolting disconnect between audio and visual: the film is stunning to watch but a pain to hear.
Even if the soundtrack was intelligible, there’s really not much worth listening for. The Quays toss too many gothic chillers into their celluloid mix: one can spot references to everything from Orpheus to “Dracula” to “Phantom of the Opera” to half of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zones” plot twists. By the end of the 99 minute running time, there is a terrible sense of been-there/done-that. And for artists of the Quays’ caliber, that is a huge mistake.