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'Tuvalu' swims in a surreal, silent world

Saturday, April 27, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

"There's no such thing as 'silent' films!" thundered the late great James Card at his legendary Eastman House lectures. "There were pre-dialogue films -- with music, sound effects and all sorts of other joyful noise in your imagination."


RATING: R for mild sexual and adult themes.

STARRING: Denis Lavant, Chulpan Hamatova, Philippe Clay, Terrence Gillespie, E.J. Callahan.

DIRECTOR: Veit Helmer



It was a matter of religious dogma to him. See that gorgeous old sign preserved, thank God, on the side of the Benedum? "Stanley Photoplays" -- left from the days when film stories were literally moving pictures, and not yak-yak-yak theater on a screen.

"Tuvalu," the photoplay at hand, now at the Denis Theatre, is a refreshingly weird throwback to that concept. Card would have loved it. I'm not sure whether I did, or whether you will, but we're better off seeing and deciding for ourselves.

To begin with, it's a joint Bavarian-Bulgarian production. When and what was the last Bavarian-Bulgarian production you saw? Me neither. But don't worry. This universe is a surreal one, where language doesn't matter (or even really exist). Certainly, it's of no importance to Anton (Denis Lavant), the eccentric son and reluctant apprentice of an ancient bathhouse owner.

Both the owner and the bathhouse are ancient -- to the point of falling-down decrepit. The water of Anton's dreams is the open seas, but the water of his reality is the murky stuff of an indoor pool containing half a dozen patrons, whose number is decreasing because of chunks of ceiling plaster that come crashing down on their heads. Talk about occupational and recreational hazards.

Only the elusive presence of beautiful Eva (Chulpan Hamatova) serves to illuminate Anton's existence, not to mention his manic-depression. Both are aggravated by the intention of his evil, greedy brother (Terrence Gillespie) to tear down the seedy bathhouse (as well as the whole town) to make way for a high-tech City of the Future.

It's "Metropolis" meets "The Bathhouse of Dr. Caligari," full of eerie German-expressionist lighting, tinted black-and-white film stock and speechless, histrionic miming. What makes it very different, on the other hand, from its classic 1920s inspirations is that it's not-so-secretly comic rather than tragic.

First-time feature director Veit Helmer is having a good time with his strange vision, his semi-burlesque characters -- and with us. The very intense Lavant often looks and acts like a latter-day Chaplin in the most latter-day of all "Modern Times."

He spends most of his time chasing Hamatova around (first-time directors can never resist chase scenes).

She, for her part, beautifies this stylized celebration of chaos during a lovely nude pool scene, swimming with her goldfish bowl!

Make of "Tuvalu," showing at the Harris Theater, what you will. The symbols and images here range from Eisensteinian to Frankensteinian.

If you -- unlike James Card -- regard the absence of dialogue as bad news, at least there's corresponding good news: no subtitles.

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