Thursday 28 May 2009

The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (2005)

Directors: The Brothers Quay
Stars: Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna and César Sarachu

The Brothers Quay are apparently major names in short film and animation, but while I've heard their names before, I knew little about them: only a documentary they made on Jan Svankmajer. This film reeks of experience and a will to return to pure cinema from moment one. While there are words spoken, sung and placed on the screen for our benefit, they dart in and out like phantoms, leaving us with the suggestion that it's their sound or shape that matters not their actual content. And if it wasn't for the sound, this could almost be a silent movie, so much does it play with light and shadow, making textures out of everything. No wonder Terry Gilliam is an executive producer.

Amidst many bizarre visuals, many of which are not recognisable, we watch an opera singer, the soprano Malvina van Stille, be abducted from a live performance by a mysterious admirer. He's Dr Emmanuel Droz and to his memorable property is invited a piano tuner by the name of Don Felisberto Fernandez. This would appear strange, given that Droz has no pianos, but he does have seven automata, highly intricate musical devices with which he intends to give a special command performance. In preparation he needs Fernandez to ensure that they're in pristine condtion. Not coincidentally, Fernandez is also the double of Malvina's fiance, Adolfo Blin.

And within this environment, which is not unlike an dreamlike opera stage itself, our story unfolds mysteriously and against a sumptuous visual and auditory backdrop. It's a very European film, presumably deliberately so to milk the exotic confluence of accents. It's a French/German/English co-production, shot in Germany and with dialogue in English and Portuguese. The main cast and crew is similarly diverse: from the Quay Brothers themselves on down. This pair of American twins, who were brought up on European culture and who moved to London in the sixties, wrote and directed the film, which would appear to be distinctly theirs in many ways.

Malvina, the soprano, is Amira Casar, English by birth but the daughter of a Kurdish father and a Russian mother, an opera singer no less. She's also fluent in French and prefers playing in European films. The only one I've seen is Asia Argento's Transylvania. Dr Droz is the experienced German actor Gottfried John, who starred in the Brothers Quay's first feature, Institute Benjamenta, but is probably best known in the west for the Bond movie Goldeneye. The piano tuner of the title is played by César Sarachu, a Spanish actor who also appeared in Institute Benjamenta. Also Spanish is Assumpta Serna, the seductive housekeeper and assistant to Dr Droz.

I focus on this because it all seems to be far more important than the actual story, which is cryptic and confusing and very possibly immaterial in the grand scheme of things, which obviously speaks to the visuals and the sounds. This is obviously meant to be an experience, akin to an opera sung in a foreign tongue, where you don't necessarily catch all the nuances of the story because you're not fluent in the language but which you absorb through the sheer majesty of the performance. Of course, opera is very much an acquired taste and this film is no different. Is it gorgeous? Yes, undoubtedly. Can I pretend to understand it? Nope.

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