October 10, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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Sometimes a film is so beautiful, so surreal, so enthralling in its imagery and conception, that it doesn’t even need such traditional constraints as dialogue and a linear plot. Tuvalu is just that kind of film. Shot entirely in black and white and without any conventional dialogue, this film is utterly engrossing from its opening minutes to its final shot. The film is the story of a dilapidated public pool house run by Anton, his mother Martha, and his blind father Karl (the lifeguard, believe it or not). The bumbling but good-hearted Anton and his mother keep the pool in reasonable running state, all the while trying to maintain an illusion of prosperity for Karl by playing tapes of children running, periodically throwing life preservers into the water, and accepting buttons instead of coins as payment.

But the pool is being threatened by Anton’s devious brother Gregor, who wants to raze the building to make way for new housing developments — and in the process, steals away Eva, the charming and creative girl who’s also the object of Anton’s love. The whole plot is straight out of an old Marx Brothers comedy, and the slapstick humor and playfully exaggerated surrealism lend themselves well to the storyline. The filming itself also adds to the whimsical feel. The black and white stock for the movie was painstakingly hand-dyed so that indoor scenes are tinted yellow, and outdoor ones tinted blue — and each scene is filled with a depth of action, scenery, and shadow that makes each frame appear gorgeous and full of life.

Besides all of these aesthetic features, the most unusual feature of the movie is its striking lack of dialogue — the characters never exchange more than a word or two; at most, they exclaim someone’s name or make some noise to indicate emotion. But the acting is so strong, and the script so well-written, that no words are ever needed to advance the plot. The main bulk of the action is presented in images. Anton’s love for Eva is developed in a complex series of interactions where he smells her bra, watches her swim with her goldfish (in a breathtaking example of underwater choreography), and later hugs her as she leaves the pool house. These wordless scenes are much more powerful than any clumsy dialogue could’ve been, and the imagery perfectly captures the awkward, innocent bond developing between the two leads.

Because of the unique nature of the film, it is driven along by symbols. Crucial symbols are the blind lifeguard’s whistle (his source of power and respect that eventually gets passed on to Anton), the mechanical part that runs both the pool cleaner and the boat engine that Eva needs to get to the island of Tuvalu, and the calendar which marks the countdown to the pool’s next inspection. The strange mechanical part (which, coincidentally, also happens to be very whistle-like) forges a rivalry between Anton and Eva that forces him to choose between the woman he loves and the business he must protect for his father.

As serious as all this could be, the film has a lighthearted spirit that injects everything with an air of childlike innocence. The characters — particularly the villainous, frizzy-haired Gregor — are all caricatures of real people, their actions giant-sized to compensate for the lack of voices. Denis Lavant, as Anton, and Chulpan Hamatova, as Eva, turn in incredible lead performances, capturing a depth of emotion and motivation inside these cartoonish personas. Hamatova’s Eva is a dazzling nymphet who obviously puts her all into everything she does — seeing her dolled up in Army fatigues to sneak into the pool house ninja-style is hilarious, and indeed most of her actions will get anyone but the biggest Scrooge smiling. Lavant is just as charming as Anton, giving his character equal doses of naivet