Veit Helmer – Tuvalu (1999)


Silent movies require a unique visual storytelling grammar, a rhythm of clear, economical medium shots, punctuated by close-ups of pertinent objects and human faces reacting. Veit Helmer’s debut feature Tuvalu isn’t strictly a silent movie—it features sound effects and the odd exclamation—but the film is virtually dialogue-free, and heavily influenced by the grammar of the silents and the fanciful retro-futurist decay of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But Helmer has neither the clarity nor the rococo flourish of his predecessors, and his over-reliance on color filters and crammed, busy takes inhibits Tuvalu’s ability to charm and enchant. The film stars Denis Lavant (the craggy but acrobatic center of the contemporary French cinema classics Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf and Beau Travail) as the manager of a swimming pool in a crumbling, depressed metropolis. Lavant spends his days tricking his blind father into believing that the business is doing well, while fending off his older brother, who’s in charge of demolishing condemned buildings and replacing them with new, computerized wonders. The title Tuvalu refers to an island paradise far from the industrial wasteland depicted in the movie; Lavant hopes to sail there, preferably on the tugboat of lovely local swimmer Chulpan Khamatova, but accidents conspire to keep him at work, with Khamatova at arm’s length. Tuvalu might well appeal to fans of Jeunet’s Amelie, or Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, or the Fritz Lang retrospective that’s been touring America. It has an aggressively fantastic tone, laced with thwarted romance and the simple conflict of good and evil, and it’s loaded with eye-catching style, even if that style obscures more than it reveals. But it’s all more than a little arch, and too much of an exercise. Both the comedic and the dramatic set pieces are mired in theory: It’s what might be funny or heart-tugging, buffered by layers of emotional remove. Even the anti-modernization plot, and the attendant “steampunk” art direction, displays some phoniness. Tuvalu is set in a world of cool-looking, old-timey mechanisms, yet the audience is supposed to join the hero in resenting the encroachment of new technology. In the end, it’s just a matter of preference for one kind of contraption over another.
Onion AV Club

Finding the right words to describe Tuvalu is difficult for reasons that only begin with the fact that this aurally rich movie is nearly wordless. Imagine, if you will, a beloved bastard child of Charlie Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein, or of Jean Vigo and Chuck Jones — Delicatessen by way of Metropolis and Ubu Roi. Tuvalu is such a melting pot of influences and inspirations that its tangled genetic code reads like a ticker tape strip processed in Braille. First-time feature director Veit Helmer of Germany (with a surname that perhaps sealed in his destiny at birth) has concocted a unique burlesque goulash that feeds the soul and intoxicates the senses. Although few words are uttered in the course of the movie, Tuvalu is anything but silent, relying on sounds, exclamations, and music to advance the story. Tuvalu also tells its story though the arresting power of its imagery. Filmed in black-and-white and then tinted (the indoor color is a mustardy sepia tone; outdoors, where it’s always raining, has a bluish tint), the cinematography by Emil Hristow is essential to the success of this movie. Helmer’s compositional dynamics are just as integral to Tuvalu as the intrinsic weirdness of the images: a woman swimming naked with a goldfish in a bowl, a hairdryer that spits out coins, a blind lifeguard aurally tricked into believing his pool is brimming with activity, floating police chalk lines outlining a corpse found in a pool of water — nearly every sequence has some moment that leaves us scratching our heads over its defiance of the common laws of logic and physics. Grounding Tuvalu’s cartoon-like plasticity is a solid knowledge of the visual grammar of silent movies, and Helmer’s mad delight in using everything but dialogue to tell this story. The narrative goes something like this: A decrepit old swimming pool in a crumbling Beaux Arts bathhouse (Helmer found just the right location sets in Sofia, Bulgaria) is staffed by Anton (Lavant, who is best known for his lead roles in Lovers on the Bridge and Beau Travail) and his mother, who works the admission kiosk where customers pay with buttons instead of cash. The scant number of patrons allows Anton to ingeniously devote himself to convincing his blind father that the pool is a beehive of activity. His brother wants the old man to sell the property for bundles of cash. Then, into Anton’s life, floats Eva (Khamatova), her goldfish, and her father. The gregarious expressions of the actors also generously assist in the film’s narrative exposition and overall humor. Some viewers are bound to think that Tuvalu looks and feels too much like a sterile student exercise in film grammar and technique. Yet, if anything, Tuvalu is a study in overstimulation: ideas, gambits, jokes, and surreal jumbles pulse from every frame of the movie’s succinct 86 minutes. Tuvalu amply repays the viewer for the attentiveness it requires. Personally, I’ve just caught up with Tuvalu after missing some opportunities to see it at a couple of American film festivals I’ve attended in recent years. Don’t make the same mistake I did in regard to this limited one-week Austin run. This is one-of-a-kind filmmaking. Even if its grand experiment doesn’t appeal to all tastes, Tuvalu is nevertheless recommended for its singular vision — a concept executed with bravura style, intelligent curiosity, and playful wit. Set sail for Tuvalu today.

Subtitles:not needed

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