Sinister but magical

Special to The Times

There must be something in the water in Philadelphia. It's where David Lynch conceived his astonishing debut film, "Eraserhead," and it's where the Quay brothers (who are identical twins) came of age as artists. All three filmmakers seem to have a direct line to the realm of the collective id, where Jungian archetypes and characters from the Brothers Grimm play out dark tales of eros and death.

That description pretty much characterizes the Quays' mesmerizing new film, "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes." A fable of obsession that unfolds in the castle of the diabolical Dr. Droz, the movie revolves around the bizarre inventions of a composer, scorned by his peers, who's hatched a terrifying plot of revenge. The singular genius of the Quays is on dazzling display with Droz's inventions, gleaming kinetic contraptions, none of which actually do anything but are amazing to look at.

Releasing their debut film, "Nocturna Artificialia," in 1979, the Quays began as animators and subsequently developed a method for synthesizing stop-action animation and live action that's at once disturbing and breathtakingly beautiful. With the possible exception of Canadian director Guy Maddin, there's not another living filmmaker who comes close to creating a world as potent and magical as the one conjured by the Quays. Their films, mostly shorts, have an ingenious handmade quality that puts computer-generation to shame, and watching one of them is akin to taking a trip to a museum; every frame is painstakingly composed, intricately layered and spring-loaded with weird surprises.

A sinister cloud of enchantment hangs over Droz's castle, where everything from dust motes to kitchen utensils is alive and possessed of dubious intent. As in dreams, extraordinary things happen regularly and are treated as business as usual by the people experiencing them. The character of Droz incorporates aspects of Dracula and Frankenstein, and like many great villains, he drags a pair of innocent lovers into his web. As was the case with the Quays' first live-action film, "Institute Benjamenta" (1995), the protagonist is played by Gottfried John, a German actor best known for his work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. John has one of those unforgettable Fassbinder faces, etched with all the sorrows of centuries of humankind, and he has a perverse flair for comedy that's delicious to watch.

The Quays have been hailed as masters of animation, but they handle actors with aplomb too. Dialogue plays a minimal role in their work, leaving the actors to communicate primarily through body language and facial expressions. The Quays choreograph their cast with precision, keeping the performances intense but just this side of the mannered excess that mars many silent films.

Though American by birth, the Quays have been based in London since the late '60s, and their work is steeped in the brooding, distinctly European sensibility associated with writers such as Bruno Schulz and Robert Walser. The world they inhabit is cloistered and strange, and if movies that don't "make sense" make you nervous, then this isn't for you. However, those who can surrender to the Quays' poetic logic will find "The Piano Tuner" to be nothing short of a masterpiece.


MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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