In liquid slow motion, a bullet moves through a dense pine forest, curving impossibly through the syrupy air, until it finally lodges in a pine cone. In a flea's-eye-view, a gigantic length of thread snakes through the tiny needle hole in a nightshirt, producing a sort of disciplinary garment whose neat column of thimbles will prevent the sleeper from lying on his back. A group of seven men, attending at the door of their ailing mistress, sways in a luminous swath of light, which dances and swirls about them. These are three images from Institute Benjamenta, or, This Dream People Call Human Life (1995), the first feature film by the Brothers Quay. These scenes convey some of the sense in which non-sentient life seems to take precedence over human life in the film, but perhaps do not convey the film's sense of smell. How does a film leave a viewer with an overwhelming impression of fragrance, as though she has been inhaling it as intensely as seeing it?
The Quay brothers, Stephen and Timothy, American, have developed a style in which a film offers itself as richly to the senses of smell and touch as it does to vision and hearing. Not coincidentally, the film appeals to a subjectivity that is not human, or not only human; it lingers on the lives of inanimate objects and unseen things, dispersing the subjectivity usually reserved for human characters over the entire image. What connects the film's sense of smell with its dispersion of the subject is aura, or the animate force of objects organic and inorganic, human and filmic. The novel on which the film is based charts its characters' gradual loss of selfhood; the Quays do this as well, but they counter this trajectory with a tide of nonhuman life. While the characters seem to sleepwalk, the objects and the space among which they move are endowed with a vibrating, tactile life.
The Quays are known for their exquisitely detailed animations, in works such as The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984), Street of Crocodiles (1986) and The Comb (From the Museums of Sleep) (1991). With Institute Benjamenta, the Quays bring their obsessive abilities with animation to the world of live action. Institute Benjamenta is a sort of fairy tale based upon a novel, Jakob von Gunten (1909), by the eccentric Swiss writer Robert Walser. The Institute is a school for servants run by siblings Lisa Benjamenta (played by Alice Krige) and Johannes Benjamenta (Gottfried John). When Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enrolls in the school, he disrupts its somnambulistic rhythm like the prince in Sleeping Beauty who awakens the sleeping princess and brings the castle into rusty motion. The plot is slim: The seven male students endlessly go through the motions of servanthood. The head student Kraus (Daniel Smith) keeps a watchful eye on his mistress as she begins to lose her composure. Both sister and brother fall in love with the new student. Jakob narrates the process of losing his identity in this machine that produces human machines. Lisa dies from repressed longing. Herr Benjamenta dissolves the Institute, and in the penultimate scene he and Jakob are walking away from the school, strangely giddy, snow whirling around them as though inside a glass snow-globe.
All Brothers Quay films are produced by Atelier Koninck, which comprises the Quays and producer Keith Griffiths. The film's score, by Lech Jankowski, uses jazz, orchestral and antique instruments in brilliant, spare combinations. Like other experimental feature films, Institute Benjamenta was difficult to fund and ultimately found international co-production. Past Quay films have been funded by the British Film Institute and the BBC's Channel Four. The first financial support for Institute Benjamenta came from Image Forum, the Tokyo-based center for avant-garde cinema; then Channel Four offered major sponsorship, together with British Screen, and finally the German-based Pandora Film.(1) The Quays support their more experimental work by producing cultural documentaries and "graphic interludes" for commercial television and designing theater and opera productions for director Richard Jones. …