Review by Kim Hollis
March 21, 2002
I suspect that to truly enjoy Tuvalu on every level, one would have to have more than a passing familiarity with the classics of silent film, particularly those that feature Buster Keaton.
Since it would be pretentious for me to pretend that my silent cinema knowledge extends any further than high-school viewings of Metropolis interspersed with upside-down screenings of Pink Floyd's The Wall (I swear it's better if you watch it that way), I am instead at the distinct disadvantage of trying to comprehend this quirky little film from a rather basic point of view.
At its heart, Tuvalu is a melodramatic fable complete with an underdog hero, a wispy dame, and an evil Snidely Whiplash type. In this case, our champion is the dog-eyed Anton, earnestly portrayed by French actor Denis Lavant. He is the youngest son of a blind man who also happens to own a dilapidated bathhouse in some strange, possibly European city (Tuvalu is actually a small island in the Western Pacific, if that means anything). The business has fallen on hard times, and it is up to Anton to maintain the illusion that the bathhouse is still thriving so that his father will not become distressed.
Assisting the naïve dreamer in his efforts to keep the business running is a cashier named Martha (Catalina Murgea), who has an odd obsession with buttons, even accepting them as payment for admission (though now that I think about it, she was probably one of the primary contributory reasons for the bathhouse's decline). Lurking in the background and sabotaging their work is Anton's brother, Gregor (Terrence Gillespie), who resembles nothing so much as a disturbing love child of Lyle Lovett and David Lynch. The evil Gregor's primary goal in life is to raze the entire town so that he can go forward with the construction of an ambitious and humongous condominium complex.
Enter Eva (Chulpan Khamatova), a beautiful woman who has whisked into town with her father on their boat. Anton falls for her, and the courtship is, to put it kindly, weird. But that's really par for the course here, and Eva somehow seems to fit naturally into Anton's unique little microcosm. When Gregor machinates a tragic accident, that world is thrown into turmoil, and Anton is forced to simultaneously fight for the future of the bathhouse and to win the heart of his beloved Eva.
Tuvalu was initially filmed in black-and-white and then the stock was tinted and colorized, depending on setting. For example, the bathhouse itself is a kind of raw sienna, while the city and locality beyond is cerulean-gray. The yellow-brown of the bathhouse would seem to signify the simplicity, comfort, warmth and stability of hearth and home that Anton has been accustomed to enjoying, while the light gray-blue of the outdoors eternalizes the draw of Poseidon's ocean that our hero yearns to explore. Neither color is really emphasized as preferable to the other, but they do go a long way in signifying the different emotions being stirred in Anton's soul. Director Veit Helmer is really quite ingenious in his use of shadow and light, and the movie frequently has an ethereal feel to it that is entirely appropriate for the fairy tale that is being presented.
Though it is easily compared to the silent cinema of days long gone, Tuvalu itself really isn't a silent movie. The various clunks, clangs, grunts, brief phrases and under-the-breath exclamations are all integral to the theme and flow of the story. In particular, the gasping and thumping of a vital piece of machinery is a constant presence throughout the film. Video game fans will probably notice sound effects from an old classic as well, which was a strange but endearing touch.
More important than the careful usage of sound to the overall success of the film is the ability of the actors to convey infinite levels of complicated emotion almost exclusively through exaggerated facial expression. It is here where our cast of characters is most impressive, and also where Tuvalu hearkens most similarly to the earliest films of history (OK, so I guess I watched some of the old silents when my family used to go to Ground Round for dinner). It's amazing to observe the effectiveness of a simple gesture or inclination of the head as the performers interact. Levant and Khamatova are especially talented in this area, and while neither of them would be classified as knockout-level attractive (though Khamatova is lovely in a waif-like way), they both have an enormous amount of charisma and charm. Singular recognition must be given to Philippe Clay, who plays the Anton's blind father, Karl, and is able to show the necessary range of feeling even as dark glasses cover his eyes.
Though the film is essentially a fairy tale at its core, there is a heavy amount of crude slapstick that almost certainly shows the influence of the Marx Brothers and early cinema mainstays like the Keystone Cops. Tuvalu provides a number of laugh-out-loud moments even as the plot shifts with more violent and tragic twists (though the violence is fairly cartoonish in nature). The landscape and atmosphere is bleak and almost post-apocalyptic, making it pretty clear that Tuvalu's deeper message beyond Anton's heroic story is that progress - particularly when it involves the destruction of old, cherished landmarks - is intolerable. That implication is never heavy-handed, though the mark of delineation between good and evil is completely unambiguous. Tuvalu is an effortlessly unique film; that said, it certainly isn't for everybody. It is easier to appreciate the pieces that make up the whole on deeper reflection rather than on immediate viewing, so those who lack patience and prefer more immediate gratification will likely find themselves frustrated (I know I did, initially). Tuvalu is not a film that could ever hope to find any sort of mainstream audience due to its extreme eccentricity, but the greatest compliment I can give is that it awakened an interest in early film history that I look forward to exploring in the near future.
The German production has been playing at various international festivals for over two years now and has been available for viewing here and there in the US. Though it may not be easy to find at local theaters, Tuvalu should be a delight for any film lover who enjoys the odd and quirky.