DIRECTED BY: Veit Helmer
FEATURING: Denis Lavant, Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea
PLOT: Can a picturesque but dilapidated Turkish bathhouse pass a government inspection, and can love between a poolboy and a female patron flourish after the girl’s father is killed when a piece of the crumbling ceiling falls on him?
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: 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 and has the instinctual organic oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness. In fact, it falls short of making the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot by as slim a margin as is possible. Visually, Tuvalu is a stunner; it only falls short of classic status due to a stiff storyline. While it’s hard to imagine 250 or so more impressive weird movies to make the list ahead of this one, we’re going to hold back for the moment and hold out hope we do locate them; if not, we expect Tuvalu will be back to take up the slack.
COMMENTS: Stylistically, Tuvalu takes its cue from the weird world of silent film, in more ways than one. 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, from the context, the characters convey almost as much information to us just by saying each others’ names with the proper inflection, and the story is effectively told entirely on the visual level. The color scheme is 1920s monochrome, sepias for indoor scenes and steel gray for exteriors, with a brief explosion of color appearing in the rambunctious storybook hand-tinting of the fantasy scenes. There are ample references to slapstick, too, with certain sequences cranked-up Keystone Kops style, and put-upon poolboy Anton (craggy-faced Lavant) constantly scurrying about his family’s Turkish 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 peppers the film with additional bizarrities, from the 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. The weirdest bits undoubtedly revolve around the fetishistic courtship between Anton and giggly, girlish would-be sweetheart Eva. The weirdly erotic illicit 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 1930s. 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 nudity, 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. But although the individual bits of Tuvalu are often entrancing, the overall boy-meets-girl-in-a-bathhouse plotline is plays out in a somewhat confusing way and doesn’t hold as much interest as the set pieces, making for a whole that’s slightly less than the sum of its parts. In the middle of the movie Eva switches roles from 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 selfishly stealing machine parts you need to pass a government inspection, the relationship is broken beyond fixing. But in fantasy, I guess, couples can reconcile with a wave of the director’s wand, and sail off to the storybook South Seas together.
It’s possible (though doubtful) I saw an incomplete version of the film for review. I watched Tuvalu via Netflix’s streaming service, where I watched it in less than 90 minutes. Tuvalu‘s IMDB page, however, lists a surprisingly wide variety of running times for the film, ranging anywhere from 92 minutes to 107 minutes. First Run Features 2002 release suggests a runtime of 87 minutes (consistent with what I saw), while the Indician DVD-R release claims it lasts 92 minutes (consistent with the bottom end of IMDB estimates). Still, I have to wonder—is the Tuvalu I saw some sort of short American cut? Is there a longer 107 minute version out there somewhere, or are the runtime reports wrong?
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)
(This movie was nominated for review by Irene. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)