“I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema. To discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life, and death. From another perspective, another angle, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place.”–Leos Carax
DIRECTED BY: Veit Helmer
FEATURING: Denis Lavant, Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea
PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.
- Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
- The movie was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak Expressionist world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.
Brief clip from Tuvalu
COMMENTS: Tuvalu borrows its style from the weird world of silent and early sound film. Director Veit Helmer challenges himself to tell the story with the minimum amount of dialogue possible; only names and very occasional words (“no!,” “technology!”) are spoken. Remarkably, the characters convey most of the necessary story information to us with gasps, grunts, or by saying each others’ names with the proper inflection; the story is effectively told almost entirely on the visual level. The project must have been a Foley artist’s dream, however, as there is a constant rumble of footsteps, slaps, clinking machinery, the whistles and splish-splashes of a busy indoor pool, among other sounds which belie the silent film aesthetic.
The color scheme is 1920s monochrome, sepias for indoor scenes and steel gray for exteriors, with brief explosions of color appearing in the rambunctious hand-tinting of the dream sequences. There are ample references to classic slapstick, with many sequences undercranked, Keystone Kops style, and put-upon poolboy Anton (craggy-faced Lavant) constantly scurrying about his family’s bath putting out fires started by the eccentric denizens of this timeless movie-caricature world. More recent Tuvaluan influences come from famed French fantasists Jeunet/Caro (in the rapturously baroque architecture and glaze of Euro-whimsy) and the gentler moments of Brazil (like the South American country in Terry Gilliam’s dystopia, the island of Tuvalu here represents an idyllic escape from an urban wasteland, and also comes complete with its own breezy theme song).
Even without more, these exotic stylistic influences would make Tuvalu pretty damn weird to the average viewer. Although the film is not thoroughly surrealistic, Helmer does pepper the film with additional bizarrities, from the shaggy toy bird who wends his way through the sky in the film’s opening to a blind lifeguard to an absurd comedy sequence involving top hats and a lonely pedestrian crossing that might have been conceived by Charlie Chaplin under the influence of LSD. Some of the weirdest bits revolve around the fetishistic courtship between Anton and giggly, girlish would-be sweetheart Eva. The first panty-sniffing scene, with the boy and girl tugging on the coveted underwear through broken floorboards, looks like something Luis Buñuel might have come up if he’d directed fetish porn in the 1920s. Equally strange and sexy is Eva’s skinny dip in the pool—she takes her pet goldfish with her, carrying it along in her bowl as she swims and laughs underwater, while rather than spying on her, the smitten Anton rifles through her lingerie. Later, Eva puts her panties on Anton’s blow-up doll while he sleeps—yes, it’s fair to say the couple has an odd romantic dynamic.
Tuvalu falls short of classic status solely due to its stiff storyline. Although the individual bits are entrancing, the overall boy-meets-girl-in-a-bathhouse plot plays out in a somewhat confusing way, compounded by the lack of expository dialogue. The overall result doesn’t hold as much interest as the set pieces, making for a whole that’s slightly less than the sum of its parts. It took me three watches to get a good grasp on the story beyond its archteypal love triangle basics, and there were still several puzzling elements. The layout of the rambling set takes some getting used to; the fact that the bathhouse itself has a ship’s deck attached to it becomes confusing when a second boat is introduced later in the story. And good luck figuring out bathhouse’s Rube Goldbergesque plumbing system, or the exact function of the massive clanking machine in the basement (is it a simple water heater?) Some plot points are (unintentionally) baffling (others are quite deliberately baffling). Anton’s attempt to rescue Eva’s father from a building that’s about to be detonated with a slingshot and a canary is more efficacious than comprehensible. Gregor’s plan to sabotage the concern with a mechanized ticket-taking machine (“technology system profit!”) makes little sense; and why would the family accept his help, when they know he’s actively working to have the place torn down? Still, in a world where chalk body outlines float on water and the pedestrian crossing signs allow only men wearing hats to cross the deserted streets, a demand for too much logic feels foolish.
Some may also find it hard to accept the voyeuristic angle (i.e. the “creeper vibe”) to the love affair. Anton is constantly peeping on the undressed Eva, and whenever she catches him in the act her shock quickly turns to delight. In the middle of the movie Eva switches roles from Anton’s love interest to adversary, and she is never able to get our sympathies all the way back. Her sudden change of heart back towards Anton is handled awkwardly, depending on an unconvincing insight it would be difficult (if not impossible) for her to come to. Basically, in real life when your girlfriend blames you for negligently killing her father and then tries to sabotage your family’s livelihood by stealing machine parts you need to pass a government inspection, the relationship is broken beyond fixing. Especially when it revolved mainly around peeping and panty-sniffing in the first place. But in fantasy, couples can reconcile with a wave of the director’s wand, and sail off to the storybook South Seas together.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the kind of movie that might one day find itself in the hall of fame of surreal movie weirdness alongside cult favorites like ‘Eraserhead,’ ‘Delicatessen’ and the avant-garde frolics of Guy Maddin.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“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.”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Tuvalu (1999)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
LIST CANDIDATE: TUVALU (1999) – This site’s initial List Candidate review for Tuvalu
HOME VIDEO INFO: The best (and cheapest) version is the First Run DVD (buy) from 2002. It has two interesting extras: a photo gallery which gives you a hint how the film might have looked if it had been shot in color (pretty damn good, actually), and Helmer’s 5-minute short Surprise!, which has a number of stylistic similarities to Tuvalu (no dialogue, tinted film stock, and an overly complicated mechanical contraption as the centerpiece). Ironically, the disc includes trailers for other First Run properties, but not for Tuvalu. In 2009 Indican released Tuvalu as a DVD-R (buy) with no extra features (they also mislabeled the runtime as 101 minutes, leading to confusion over whether the previous version was complete).