If you don't understand the title The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, you probably won't be that favorably disposed toward its old-hat modernism. The music is gorgeously classical and some of the images are memorable and haunting, but experiencing the film is near-torture.

As best as it can be described, the scenario by Stephen and Timothy Quay and Alan Passes concerns a 19th-century opera singer, Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar), who is murdered then kidnapped by the evil Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John) just before her wedding to Adolpho (Cesar Sarachu). Droz takes Malvina to his mountaintop castle in a mythological netherworld, where he employs his automaton minions to revive her from the dead. At the same time, Droz enlists an unsuspecting piano tuner, Felisberto (also played by the sylphlike Sarachu), to help compose and stage a "diabolical opera" for Malvina that dramatizes her abduction.

When Malvina notices a resemblance between Felisberto and Adolpho, she becomes enamored of him. Felisberto is also smitten as he attempts to rescue the opera diva. The jealous doctor uses his lusty housekeeper, Assumpta (Assumpta Serna), to lure Felisberto away from Malvina. In the end, the finished opera causes destruction (including the death of Dr. Droz) and a sad farewell from the island for Felisberto.

In this day of art-house esoterica by Guy Maddin, Matthew Barney, Peter Greenaway, and Quay Brothers' forebear Jan Svankmajer, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes doesn't seem special or even unique. What would have been considered odd and arresting many years ago now is clichéd (and Maddin, Barney, Greenaway and Svankmajer at least demonstrate a keen sense of humor). Sadly, so far, the talented Quay Brothers have not been able to transfer the ingenuity and cleverness of their animated shorts (e.g., Street of Crocodiles, 1986) into their features: The first one, Institute Benjamenta (1994), was another stifling exercise in morbid expressionism with a skeletal plot and remote characters.

Even fans of the Quay Brothers might be disappointed by the dearth of animation and a script full of howlers: At one point, Assumpta flirts with Felisberto by saying, "When I lace up my shoes, I notice only afterwards my toe, which I assumed was inside, is still hanging outside." (It is a blessing that some of the dialogue is whispered with thick accents under the lushly orchestrated score.) Perhaps Piano Tuner would have worked better as a silent film (a la Maddin's homages to the pre-talkie era or the actual 1928 avant-garde classic The Fall of the House of Usher), but the story pacing would still be sluggish and the plot a nonsensical variation on the German Expressionist masterworks The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu.

Trevor Duncan and Christopher Slaski's aforementioned score, Nic Knowland's blend of black-and-white and color cinematography, and a few of the exquisitely designed shots indicate this project was meant to be profound, yet everything else about The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes suggests a prankish goof on an audience seeking the latest in cinematic chic.