Film is mostly about entering worlds. Some films are entered through the frontdoor, others through the backdoor. But this one can be entered from a selection of different doors. But part of the anxiety of choosing those doors is what will prevent you to actively engage in it.
This is a hard watch, and you must be prepared. If you look at film as an adventure into exotic territories, if you allow the vocabulary to differ in small, unnatural ways, if you allow lack of skill in one area because you can detect a strong center, then you might like this.
The Quays are animators. They work with stop/motion and their selection of symbols, objects, and puppets. They borrow elements from Victorian aesthetics, the Kaballah, Tarot, and affiliated literature. So their primary focus is on the image. They dream up compositions and recreate them. What they do here is swaddle that with a narrative. So the narrative eventually is about re-creating dreamed compositions.
I enjoy films about construction, creation, because so much of what we see when we watch film is about building an ideal world in your mind to accomodate the one on screen. And in order to build your life you must pick up the tools to build elaborate worlds.
Like all films about building, we have a master pupetteer. He is German here, but I believe he was Jewish in the original script. If not, he could have been. He wants to spin his own tale, so he kidnaps an opera singer in the middle of a stage performance. He keeps her secluded on his private island and forces her to rehearse her play, with himself as director. She is entranced throughout the journey trying to recover her memories of the play as though it were her real life. We learn that it almost was, because her lover in the play was also her lover in real-life.
Our German Master summons a piano tuner to repair a number of musical boxes around the Island. The tuner keeps a journal of his dreams on the island which he mysteriously sees as ‘plays’ inside the musical boxes he is tuning. Those boxes are like display cases of miniature models of different parts of the island. It becomes unclear whether he really dreams his dreams or whether he simply enters and lives the pre-fabricated worlds of the boxes.
(Some paintings on buildings also recreate events that have taken or are taking place at a given moment.)
The tuner finally meets the singer and falls in love with her. She remembers him as her lover from her play. So the German Master/Director makes him play the part of the lover and goes through various rehearsal rituals. These rituals slowly start to sap the life out of the tuner, induce him into an trance, and make him lose his reflection. But in the process, his love with the singer grows stronger.
On opening night, a crowd of spectators arrives on the island, amongst them, the tuner, or what probably is his double. When the play begins, he recognizes himself and runs up to the stage to stop it. But it turns out the play is actually taking place in a gigantic display case, exactly like one of the musical boxes that had to be tuned.
Whoa. I hope you can catch all that at the very least, but it has many other levels of self-reflection than what can be described. The story is inspired by “The Invention of Morel”, a book from Casares, Borges’ friend, so in terms of concuring realities, parallel pasts, and all that, this film is rewarding. And its real merit for me lies precisely there. Realities are like layers, these layers in cinematic terms are images, these images here are soft-focused, mechanically precise, photographic sheets, like very old yellowed pictures of sunsets from a distant unrememberable place. So we have a marriage like no other of form and content.
But maybe such a rich design can only take place in this otherworld of art-film, where narrative logic is faint, where images fade past each other like in dreams, where the engagement relies on hard work from the viewer. I do not know. Although I feel like the Quays will never accomodate their powerful vision for the conventional vocabulary of narrative film, and neither would Gilliam do the opposite transmutation, nor Medem.
But maybe in 20 years. And we will look at this to see where it all started.