"The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" opens with an epigram from the Roman historian Sallust: "These things never happen but are always." That's about as apt a description of the twilight oddness of this movie as you're going to get. Perched somewhere between Edward Gorey, Edgar Allan Poe, a Gustave Dore engraving, and a magic-lantern show, "Piano Tuner" is wholly original while unfurling like a 19th-century absinthe vision.
It's a Quay Brothers movie, obviously. Stephen and Timothy Quay, identical-twin filmmakers born in America but working in England since the 1960s, have specialized in spooky/surrealist stop-motion animation shorts (influenced by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, among others). "Street of Crocodiles," from 1985, is their best-known movie in this country, and a DVD appropriately titled "Ten Astonishing Short Films 1984-1993" is available and recommended.
Every so often, the brothers Q. decide to cast actual human beings as their marionettes, with no slackening of impact. Their first feature-length narrative (I use the phrase loosely) was 1995's "Institute Benjamenta"; "Piano Tuner" is their second. Attention must be paid, but clarity and comprehension are not on the menu. The Quays work in images that bubble up from the preconsciousness of Western civilization.
The story line could come out of a fable by E.T.A. Hoffman. A beautiful opera singer named Malvina (Amira Casar) is murdered onstage in front of her conductor lover Adolfo (Cesar Sarachu) ; the killer, a mysterious Dr. Droz (Gottfried John) , spirits the body to his private island and brings it back to sleepwalking half-life.
At a certain point, a talented but naive piano tuner named Don Felisberto Fernandez (also played by Sarachu) is rowed out to the island and instructed to repair the doctor's seven automata: eerie fusions of flesh and clockworks that showcase the Quays' unsettling animation talents. The tuner is romantically drawn to the somnambulist singer; meanwhile, the doctor's lemming-like gardeners march out of the sea backward as his omniscient housekeeper, Assumpta (Assumpta Serna), flirts coquettishly.
The Quays film this madness through filters that bend and tatter the light; the colors are pressed out of the images for an effect that's half dream-journal and half Victorian nightmare. The whole movie feels filmed through the wrong end of a stereopticon: stiff, fascinating, riddled with secrets it doesn't care to divulge.
Consequently, one admires "Piano Tuner" without ever being swept up into it. The Quays have fashioned a hermetic lab experiment that compacts allusions to centuries of storytelling, and their knack for a breathtaking image is unparalleled, but the brothers' own obsessiveness is the movie's true subject. Their film is a fiendishly detailed toy -- the sort found at the back of a forgotten museum -- and while the shadow play it presents is an old and eternal one, you never cease to hear the whirr of the gears.