While many identical twins try to set themselves apart from each other, Tim and Steven Quay seem to revel in their doubleness. The Brothers Quay, as they are jointly known, have worked together their entire lives, first as illustrators, then as animators celebrated for elaborately detailed puppet films shown in art houses and on MTV. On Wednesday, their first live-action feature, a black-and-white film called “Institute Benjimenta,” has its premiere in the United States.
“Collaborating was always the most natural thing for us,” said Stephen. The Brothers have made 18 films over the last 16 years. “You’re reading the same literature, seeing the same films, seeing the same girls. You’re that close.”
Seeing the same girls?
“You have to be thorough,” Timothy said with a nervous chuckle.
Dressed similarly, in frayed gray suits of different shades probably found in London thrift shops and wearing matching long haircuts, the Quays finish each other’s thoughts effortlessly. They grew up in Fairview Village outside Philadelphia and attended the Philadelphia College of Art in London. Now 47, the twins have lived in London for 19 years, and their speech is strongly inflected with British rhythms. They like to offer cryptic aphorisms about film, like “It’s important to hear with your eyes and see with your ears.”
“Institute Benjimenta” is a loose interpretation of “Jacob von Gunten,” a novella by a turn-of-the-century Swiss writer, Robert Walser, who was widely regarded as a forerunner of Kafka and Beckett. The plot revolves around the breakdown of order at the Institute Benjimenta, a school for servants run by a tyrannical principal and his beautiful, tormented sister. The cast includes Mark Rylance, who is the star of the new film “Angels and Insects,” and Alice Krige, a South African-born actress who was in “Chariots of Fire.”
Jacob, the protagonist of “Institute Benjimenta,” studies at the institute. He does not exactly pulse with great expectations for his future. “We have to learn the rules by heart,” he says in a monotone. “There is but one lesson here, endlessly repeated, over and over again. We will learn very litter here. None of us will amount to much. Later in life we will all be something very small and subordinate.” Like the antihero found in much early modernist literature, Jacob is singled out, though he would prefer to remain unnoticed.
“When I discussed the part with the Quays, we talked a lot about Buster Keaton, the neutrality of his humor,” Mr. Rylance said. “Like my character in the film, Keaton plays the small person in a world that overwhelms him.”
Like the Quays’ earlier films, their new feature is an elusive, elliptical work. “The Quays make movies with more layers than a Bermuda onion,” said Guy Maddin, a Canadian film maker who is a friend of the twins’. “You have to keep peeling and peeling until you get down to this core of darkness.”
The new film does not represent the first time the Brothers Quay have worked from European cultural sources. They may have made films based on the music of Stravinsky and Janacek. They best-known film, “Street of Crocodiles,” is a 21-minute short, made in 1986, based on a story by the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who died in the Holocaust. The Quays captured the haunted, magical quality of Schulz’s text in scenes showing dolls unraveling and tiny household objects coming to life. The magnificently detailed set in “Streets of Crocodiles” – of miniature shops and houses in a dilapidated East European town – could be fitted into a suitcase.
“With the puppet films, we constantly want to be provoked by the accidental,” said Stephen, apparently the more talkative twin. “Our whole approach is to open ourselves to the found object, the chance encounter.” “Institute Benjimenta” was more scripted, but the final result is equally atmospheric.
“The film is based on a novella, but the novella itself is quite experimental, with a lot of subjective passages,” added Stephen. “It is overlaid with fairy-tale elements – Sleeping Beauty, the Seven Dwarfs, the young girl and the princeling who arrives not with the kiss of life but with the kiss of death.”
There are animated sequences in “Institute Benjimenta,” but, said Stephen, “it is mostly invisible animation.” Basically, the film offers a series of moody, surrealistic tableaux, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions.
Mr. Maddin notes that certain obsessions from the Quays’ animated works turn up in “Institute Benjimenta.” “Their obsession with fingers,” he said. “There is a little gesture that their dolls often make – cupping the air. They get their actors to move around in the same odd choreography.”
Although the Quays are American, they are a phenomenon that probably could have flourished only in England, where animation is taken more seriously as an art form and financed by organizations like Channel 4, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the British Film Institute. “In the U.S., the tradition of Disney is so strong that they don’t want to know there might be puppet films or some kind of alternative,” said Timothy. “It’s not in their brief.”
As it turned out, the Quays became film makers only after a series of false starts. After completing art school, they tried their hand at book-cover design in New York. “We never got to do what we wanted to do: the South American authors or Kafka,” said Steven. “We ended up doing some science fiction.”
Discouraged, they went to London to study art and then returned to Philadelphia at the age of 25. “For the next six years we were here doing zero,” Stephen recalled. “We worked as waiters and dishwashers. Finally, we said, ‘Let’s just get out of here,’ and we went back to Europe.”
In Europe they met people connected to the British Film Institute who suggested that they write a script in order to get a grant to do an animated film. “When we got the grant, we had to learn how to make a puppet film,” Stephen said. “It was a long process of exploring all the possibilities of what the puppets could do. Learning under fire.”
Today, they share an apartment in North London and a studio in South London, where they spend up to 18 hours a day.
The early influences on the Quays were pioneering Polish animators like Walerian Borowczyk – a man of “despairing, unique vision” whose work remains obscure in the Unite States, Timothy said. Later, they absorbed the work of the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, best known for his versions of “Faust” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
Today the Quays are avid students of, among other things, Baroque architecture in Germany.
“The quality of light and sound that emanates in those churches,” said Stephen, “the way they create space and use music – all of those elements are exactly what we try to put into our films.”