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Originally published Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" | Strangely normal for animated Quay film

If fans of idiosyncratic animators Stephen and Timothy Quay ever suffered shame, embarrassment or even neurosis by being labeled cultists...

Special to The Seattle Times

If fans of idiosyncratic animators Stephen and Timothy Quay ever suffered shame, embarrassment or even neurosis by being labeled cultists, the duo's second dramatic feature may finally release said devotees from filmdom's weirdo alternative underground.

"The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" is by no means what any follower of the Quay twins' bizarre animated shorts could call conventional. Still, it is a bold step into a mainstream realm for its ancient fablelike theme, agile storytelling, magnificent design and sure grasp of long-form narrative structure.

The setting is an eerie fairy-tale 19th-century Europe, where mysterious opera lover Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John, who starred in the Quays' first live-action feature, "Institute Benjamenta") sets his evil sights on the delectable concert-hall diva Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar).

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes," with Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna, César Sarachu. Directed by Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay, from a screenplay by Alan Passes and the Quays. 99 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences. Grand Illusion.

Most of the action unfolds at Droz's crumbling island villa, where he presides Moreau-like over changeling "gardener" inmates, a dark siren of a maid who's more temptress than housekeeper and a set of intricate automaton machines that are part musical instrument and part organic mind devices.

He's kidnapped an amnesiac Malvina from the city's public stage to this remote place, which comes to life through a dreamlike combination of elaborate practical sets and the Quays' distinctive stop-motion animation skill. The creepily singular doll-animation technique also brings to being the anthropomorphic soul of the automaton devices.

Into this mix is brought a famous piano tuner, Felisberto (César Sarachu), unknowingly recruited by Droz to tinker with his precious machines, and in the process allow him to complete the dark opera he's composed. Unbeknownst to the island's imprisoned population, Felisberto included, they are all to become cast members for a hellish exclusive performance.

The Quays' use of desaturated tints and nightmarish cutaways to the bizarre animations is punctuated by nervy slashes of color and an overall production design that is often thrilling. Convoluted by design, the nature of this legend often recalls the work of Canadian art-house hero Guy Maddin.

Purists may quibble that there's not enough creepy animation, but in the main this is distinctively, deliciously, the brothers Quay.

Ted Fry:

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