Thursday, May 26, 2011

Veit Helmer's TUVALU

We never see the island nation of Tuvalu in this odd little German experimental film, but seeing Tuvalu is not the point at all as we explore the last days of a decrepit bathhouse in Eastern Europe and the lives of the people who are keeping it going.

Tuvalu is that oddity of oddities, a silent film with sound, by which I mean it uses all of the tropes of silent film -- broadly gesture-driven acting that occasionally strays into mime, strong and somewhat exaggerated facial expressions -- but also employs a full range of sound effects. What it lacks, for the most part, is dialogue, and what little there is, is in a hodgepodge of Eastern European languages that goes unsubtitled because subtitles are not necessary; the meaning is always perfectly clear, even when the rare spoken words are not obvious English loan words or cognates.

It evokes great old silents (especially German Expressionist triumphs like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), too, in its monochrome cinematography, mostly warm and rich sepia but with occasional outdoor scenes shot in green or blue, and a wonderful handling of light, especially in the scenes taking place in the weirdly beautiful old swimming pool at the bath house's heart.

But the real joy in Tuvalu is in watching its lead actors. Denis Lavant, who plays Anton, the good son of the bath house's aging, dotty owners (the bad son is engaged in trying to tear down and sell off the bath house to developers), has not only a wonderfully expressive face but an uncommon grace of movement; he's like a ballet dancer or a gymnast as he bounds kinetically through scenes that put these abilities of his on fine display as he scrambles to maintain the illusion that not only is everything in the bath house still in working order but is in working order through impressive modern technology, an illusion he creates largely through putting the business's regulars to work behind the scenes to convince an inspector that the showers, blow dryers, and the all-important boiler (a fantasy in steam punk) are in perfect working order.

He's paired here with Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova, who is as cute as Audrey Tatou and as opaquely innocent-looking as Patricia Arquette, as Eva. Hers is the dream to leave for Tuvalu on her boat that is almost in working order; all she needs is one part that happens to also be a crucial part for the boiler that keeps the bath house going...

Of course Anton falls in love with Eva, in a series of charming scenes that play with perspective in eye-bending ways, long before they realize they are actually at cross-purposes. The course of true love never did run smoothly, not even in a swimming pool full of goldfish...

My favorite scene occurs toward the end, after evil brother Gregor has persuaded the family to replace Mama (who mans the admissions window and has developed a weird habit of accepting buttons as currency) with a fancy modern ticket selling machine, only to have it break during his first demonstration. In a perfect illustration of the sunk cost fallacy that reminded me wonderfully of the dotty muscle-powered space program in Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra, the family has set up the remnants of the machine in the ticket window; when an inspector attempts to gain admission with a button, Mama shakes her head and insists he put an actual coin in the slot. The coin rolls down a shute into a glass jar, Mama simulates some computer-ish whirring noises, hands the inspector a ticket, and finishes up by flicking a cigarette lighter to illuminate a light-up panel on the machine. It's hilarious and touching and poignant all at once and perfectly encapsulates right there all that I love about this movie.

So, if you're looking for something a little different to while away an hour or so, I can't recommend this film highly enough. As with most of the weird stuff I've found lately, it's streaming right now on Netflix. Go for it!

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