Coherence is overrated, anyway

“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes”Zeitgeist FilmsDirected by The Brothers QuayWritten by Alan Passes, Stephen Quay and Timothy QuayStarring: Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna and Csar SarachoNot rated/99 minutesOpened Feb. 9, 2007Two out of four stars

A simple way to describe Stephen and Timothy Quay’s “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” would be to compare it to a dream-murky, bizarre and haunting in its visuals, which seem to swim in and out of focus, perhaps making sense in the moment, but leaving the dreamer with a definite sense of “H’wuh?” upon waking.

It’s like a more forgettable dream, the type that intermittently keeps your mind busy throughout the night with images of laboratories, forests and dark corners-nothing happy or terrifying enough to burn into your psyche. When it ends, you climb out of bed and move on to more pressing thoughts such as, “I need to take a leak.”

An even simpler way to describe this movie would be to say it’s dreadfully dull and maddeningly oblique. I’ve never seen anything like it, but once the visual novelty wears off (which happens quickly), we’re left with a story that makes no sense and characters whose motivations and personal tragedies are ill-defined. Wake me when it’s over.

If I were to guess at the storyline, this is what I’d say: In what looks like early 20th-century France (if France were turned upside-down, shaken around a bit, drained of life and then reconstructed as a German-expressionist film crossed with a Grimm fairy tale), a beautiful opera singer (Amira Casar) performs on stage, her fianc (Csar Saracho) is on the piano and a sinister-looking older gentleman (Gottfriend John) watches from the balcony. The singer, Malvina van Stille, collapses and the older man, actually a mad scientist named Dr. Emmanuel Droz, swoops down over Malvina’s body and says to her husband, “She will never sing for you again.”

Malvina is then spirited away to the doctor’s island laboratory, a place with craggy mountains, sheer ocean cliffs and the kind of shadowy forests with thin trees that, in another movie, might play host to goat-legged pipers or the Blair witch. It’s here that Dr. Droz intends to revive Malvina and, for whatever reason, make her re-enact her final performance. Malvina seems to be stuck in a mental state somewhere between brain-dead and mourning, obliging the doctor’s directions as if she were in a trance.

Does Droz love her? Covet her? What are his reasons for bringing her to the island?

Hell if I know.

He already lives with a woman, the housekeeper Assumpta (Assumpta Serna), and one night she dresses up for him in a see-through gown that momentarily brought me out of my bored stupor. What’s her relationship with Droz?

Again: Hell if I know.

Assumpta is either his housekeeper, his Igor, his wife, his watchdog or his sex slave-maybe all of the above. She hangs around, basically.

And then there’s the titular piano tuner (also played by Saracho), brought to the island not to tune pianos but to fix seven of the doctor’s contraptions-monstrous things called “automatons,” which, sadly, don’t transform into giant robots and do battle with Decepticons. Rather, they’re giant music boxes/automated puppet shows that, once activated, put on little plays that clue the piano tuner in on the doctor’s intentions for him and Malvina. Or something like that. One of the automatons shows a tiny, stop-motion-animated lumberjack bleeding into a pool. Another shows a rowboat being rowed by dismembered hands.

It’s no coincidence that the piano tuner looks curiously like Malvina’s husband-to-be. Or, I don’t know, maybe it is just a coincidence. I find myself half-heartedly asking these questions, not really caring for answers. Even Sigmund Freud would take one look at this movie and spin his finger around the side of his head going, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”