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With: Denis Lavant, Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea, E.J. Callahan
Written by: Michaela Beck, Viet Helmer, Ljudmila Medjanska
Directed by: Veit Helmer
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86
Date: 10/01/1999

Tuvalu (1999)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Taking a Dip

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm still not quite sure how to respond to Tuvalu, a new French film making its Bay Area debut today at the Lumiere. It's a loving tribute to filmmakers like Chaplin and Keaton and Jacques Tati -- filmed with virtually no dialogue except for grunting and sighing and unimportant background noises.

It also features one of my favorite actors, the shovel-faced Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge and Beau Travail. It's almost as if the film were made exclusively for me.

But instead I found it somehow obtuse and difficult. In addition to paying tribute to such delicate and inventive filmmakers as Chaplin, Keaton and Tati, it also tips a hat to Jean Vigo, Terry Gilliam, Leos Carax, Guy Maddin and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I guess that in all the hat-tipping and tribute-paying the film somehow forgets its own heart.

Which is not to say that Tuvalu is not fascinating and beautiful in its own right. The action takes place in a strange black-and-white (but tinted) universe where realism just doesn't exist. Lavant stars as Anton, the shy caretaker of a run-down public swimming pool. His blind father (Philippe Clay, whose first film was for Jean Renoir) still likes to play lifeguard and so Anton plays an audio tape of children running and playing while occasionally tossing an inner tube in the water so that his father can issue a warning against jumping in the pool.

Anton's mother runs the admissions window and -- seemingly because money is scarce in this world -- charges only buttons to get in. Their one steady customer is an old lady who insists on winding through the roped-off line to get to the ticket window.

The lovely little waifish Eva (Chulpan Hamatova -- who gives even Amelie a run for her money) also occasionally swims and Anton develops a strong crush on her, often finding himself in an optimum spot to watch her change her bathing suit. Like Anton, Eva is also a little strange and likes to swim around naked with a fishbowl.

Unfortunately, this lovely little world must suffer the crushing blow of greed. Anton's greedy and more worldly brother Gregor (Terrence Gillespie) schemes to get the swimming pool torn down and replaced by a housing development. Meanwhile, Anton longs to run away (to the island of Tuvalu -- hence the title) with Eva, but even that plan goes awry when her father is killed by a piece of falling plaster (the police draw a floating body outline in the pool) and Eva blames Anton for the mishap.

I suspect that what keeps us at a distance throughout Tuvalu is the strange griminess of these characters. I couldn't help wondering what all these filthy people might smell like, living in this dilapidated building, never changing clothes. Though director Veit Helmer manages to establish his own little world, and even adeptly describes the beauty of that world, the people remain slightly off-putting. They reminded me of some of Jeunet's secondary characters from Delicatessen; the ones included for ridicule only. The gift that Chaplin, Tati and the others had is that they could easily show the beauty of people as well as of the world.

Still, despite their oppressive surroundings, Lavant and Hamatova at least manage to make the best of things. And a film this bizarre and spectacular can't be entirely written off. Call it a movie "worth seeing."

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