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Comb, The (1990)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Comb, The (1990)
35mm, colour/black and white, 17 mins
DirectorBrothers Quay
Production CompanyKoninck Studios
ProducerKeith Griffiths
Screenplay Brothers Quay
MusicLeszek Jankowski

Cast: Joy Constantinides (sleeping woman), Witold Schejbal (voices)

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A woman dreams of a fairytale landscape populated by ladders and sinister puppets.

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The most deliberately dreamlike of the Quay Brothers' films, The Comb is bookended by (and intercut with) a black-and-white live-action sequence of a woman asleep in bed, the implication being that these disconcerting, dislocating impressions of fairytale landscapes populated by decrepit puppets and an endless series of ladders (shot in colour) are taking place in the darker recesses of her mind. However, this is the only aspect of the film that's in any way easy to grasp, the rest setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.

Space and scale are ambiguous throughout, the central setting taking on different aspects according to the angle at which it's viewed (which constantly shifts). At the time of production, the Quays were researching the optical phenomenon of anamorphosis (the subject and title of their next film), and the distortions visible in the background d├ęcor imply the existence of hidden images. At times it appears to be a discarded theatrical set, an impression given further credence by a camera pull-back to reveal what appear to be stage flats and a proscenium arch - though it could just as easily be a forest.

As far as the foreground action is concerned (if that's an appropriate term for events just as likely to take place offscreen or in blurred areas outside the camera's immediate depth of focus), it draws on various fairytale elements - there's a sleeping beauty, and motifs of hair and ladders suggest Rapunzel - but without coalescing into anything concrete. Even the consistency of the atmosphere is open to question, as one typically enigmatic title reads "And suddenly the air grew hard".

There appears to be some kind of 'dialogue' between the sleeper and the puppet, as their middle fingers twitch in unison (this unnatural effect achieved in the live-action sequence by filming at six frames per second, speeding up the action fourfold), but the precise connection between them is never explained. The soundtrack alternates between multilingual gibberish and Leszek Jankowski's guitar-based score, which sculpts the mood without ever imposing a formal structure.

But if viewed as a purely cinematic experience, The Comb is one of the most inexplicably compelling of all the Quays' creations. Indeed, when the sleeper awakes at the end, the effect of her enigmatic smile is to prompt an immediate repeat viewing: what does she know that the viewer doesn't?

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003', and the DVD/Blu-ray edition of 'Institute Benjamenta'.

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Video Clips
1. The dreamscape (2:21)
2. The ladders (2:09)
3. Twitching fingers (2:28)
4. The broken bone (1:22)
Production stills
Institute Benjamenta (1995)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
Channel 4 and Animation