“Art for art’s sake” is a difficult phrase. It implies a certain pretentiousness, or a certain lack of accessibility. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with creating art for art’s sake. Art doesn’t have to serve a purpose to be worth something, nor does it have to have any particular meaning to anyone other than its creator. However, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” clearly embodies the spirit of “art for art’s sake” in every possible negative way. It tries too hard to be meaningful while accomplishing nothing, is meaningless to the audience, and seems to exist not as a film, but as something to placate someone’s very confused creative urges.
“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” has a plot. What that plot is is sometimes unclear, but it more or less follows the story of a 19th century opera singer named Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar) who is killed, then abducted from the afterlife by evil scientist Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John). He then takes her to live on his private island cum clinic, as he prepares to force her to sing as part of a mechanical performance. He hires Felisberto Fernandez (Cesar Sarachu), a famed piano tuner, to repair the automatons that will be part of the performance. Over the course of Felisberto’s stay on the island, though, both Malvina and the island’s caretaker, Assumpta (Assumpta Serna) fall in love with him. Felisberto also experiences incredibly bizarre dreams that blend with reality, making it impossible to tell what is real and what is not.
It’s these dreams that provide the most difficulty with the plot. They interject randomly, turning what could be a straightforward timeline and romantic story into a jumbled mess. While it’s clear that this is partly the point – after all, if Felisberto can’t always tell the difference between reality and fantasy, why should the audience be able to? – but it is poorly done. While it is an interesting idea and could make for a bizarre and thrilling film, what it currently comes off as is a live action film desperately needing an excuse to use all the stop motion animation they have lying around and throwing it in randomly to fill time. Even then, the same animation is used over and over. Once again, this could be seen as evoking the same dream over and over, but in actuality, it comes off as needing to use the stop motion animation without actually having enough to justify its use.
Beyond this, the film tries very hard to set a particular tone. It wants to be dark and mysterious, explaining nothing and drenched in symbolism. What actually happens is that it comes off as trying too hard to make the audience believe in an eerie environment when, in fact, there’s little to create this eerie environment beyond the interjected animation. There is mystery, yes, and if left on its own, it could have propelled the plot forward. The very question of the automatons and the abducted opera singer is mystery enough in its own right. The use of the stop motion animation just detracts from this narrative, confusing it and making it impossible to get absorbed in the film.
Even within the live action sections, there is more than enough to criticise. There is a reliance on a voiceover, for instance, detailing every action that is seen on screen. As we see one character hand a box to another, for example, we hear the voiceover say “He gave me a box.” This is entirely unnecessary, and once again makes it difficult if not impossible to become immersed in the story. It just makes it abundantly clear that this is a story being told to us rather than something in which the audience is participating. Granted, it creates a bit of an additional feel of the 19th century, but at the cost of immersion and believability. It fails utterly to improve the film, instead detracting from it further.
On the whole, while there are some things to like in “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” – the set design for the island is nice, and some of the animation is interesting – it doesn’t work as a film. It’s a jumbled mess, not entirely sure what it’s trying to be, and nearly drowning in its own attempts at symbolism. It’s not terribly enjoyable, being difficult to get interested in, and what interest there is is destroyed by the voiceover and the tossed in animation. It’s a deeply flawed film, and unfortunately, not terribly watchable.Continue Reading Issue #29
April 1, 2006 (U.S.)
1 hr. 39 min.
Drama, Fantasy, Music
Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna, Cesar Sarachu