TUVALU is that rarest of rare cinematic gems. It is truly like nothing else and yet its originality has everything to do with telling the story and nothing whatsoever with shock value or self-conscious posturing on the part of its creator, Veit Helmer.
First of all, theres no dialogue, as such, in this surreal comedy and I take a calculated risk in mentioning that. You see, I firmly believe that if you didnt know that going in, you probably wouldnt miss it. There is the occasional word or name spoken, but when it happens, it only serves to show how superfluous words can be when you have actors who thoroughly understand body language and a director who understands the power of sound, whether footsteps on gravel, a splash of water, or an inarticulate cry. These characters for the most part have surprisingly involved conversations without ever saying a word, an accomplishment that is especially surprising when you consider that one of them is blind.
Its also its filmed for the most part in an evocative sepia-like black-and-white save for dream-like, blue-tinted sequence of a girl swimming au natural with her goldfish, and the sharply contrasting dream sequences that explode from the screen with a riot of polarized color. Helmer uses the severe camera angles of angst-riddled Eastern European expressionism to tell a story that is full of gentle whimsy and sharp wit. The result is an amalgam that teases the emotions with misplaced idioms yet tickles the funny bone with its stark juxtaposition. But forget the cinematic deconstruction. The only thing that matters is that its fun.
The story, set in a generic ex-Soviet bloc locale, follows the fortunes of Anton (Denis Lavant), the hapless son and possibly heir to a crumbling indoor swimming palace set in the middle of a rubble-strewn landscape. The building housing the pool, an exuberant excrescence of marble, stucco and tile, is a testament to the opulent past, but is now slowly molting its elegance inside and out. Antons blind father (Philippe Clay), a dour man who is blissfully ignorant of the hard times, still acts as the establishments lifeguard, though so few people actually swim there that Anton, always the good if unappreciated son, plays a tape recording of frolicking swimmers to fool him. Into Antons life, heretofore spent warring with the engine that powers the palaces works and dreaming of tropical shores, comes Eva (Chulpan Khamatova) and her father. Theyve just been evicted from their home by Antons brother Grigor (Terrence Gillespie), a villain with Lyle Lovett hair and no scruples. For Anton, its love at first sight. For Eva, its another disaster when a falling piece of stucco kills her father, an accident that turns out to be murder and just another part of the plot by Grigor to level the swimming palace and replace it with, well, we never do find out but it really doesnt matter. What ensues is a series of expertly executed sight gags that range from slapstick to puns and that never fail to hit their mark no matter how corny or how esoteric.
It works not just because of Helmers skill, but also because of French actor Denis Lavant as Anton. He has a face that was made for silence. Part wolf, part elf, craggy but childlike, he brings such heart to his role with just his eyes that we will follow him anywhere. Even when, too shy to declare his feelings for Eva, he instead forms a complex emotional relationship with her undergarments that is odd but romantic in ways that we can appreciate if not wish for personally.
When I saw TUVALU, named for the place both Eva and Anton dream of, at the Berlin and Beyond film festival a few years back, I was bowled over by it and very pessimistic about it getting a distribution deal here in the states. Ive never been happier to be wrong about anything.