German filmmaker Veit Helmer, who gained a reputation with several imaginative, award-winning shorts, makes a visually impressive but unsatisfying move into features with the eccentric adult fairy tale “Tuvalu.” Incorporating a wealth of influences, from the fantasy and illusion of Melies to the poetry of Vigo, the comedy of Buster Keaton to the dark, obsessive atmosphere of Kafka and the grotesque, gadgetry-laden world of Jeunet and Caro, this almost silent film, shot in colorized black-and-white, is bizarre and inventive but not all that much fun. While the material may have worked in the director’s customary short form, it feels overblown and unengaging at feature length and will struggle to break beyond selected fest dates.
The barely coherent plot revolves around lonely Anton (Denis Lavant), an attendant at a public swimming pool situated in the middle of a wasteland. He spends his days dreaming of a life at sea and tricking his blind father into thinking the run-down baths are crowded with customers and in good repair. His dreams of the sea are shared by Eva (Chulpan Hamatova), who brings vitality and life into Anton’s confined world. But she rejects him when her father (Djoko Rossich) is killed at the pool in an accident caused by Anton’s scheming brother , Gregor (Terrence Gillespie).
Gregor’s greedy plan is to close down the baths and destroy the building to make way for a new development. But Anton puts up a valiant effort to save his father’s pride and joy, enlisting the weird assortment of pool regulars to disguise all the disrepair and safety hazards during an inspection, in one of the film’s most amusing sequences. While he is unable to prevent the baths’ destruction, he eventually wins Eva’s love, delivering her from the bowels of the condemned building on a raft headed out to sea.
Shot in the beautiful, crumbling Central Baths of Sofia, Bulgaria, and in the ghostly docks at Varna on the Black Sea, dotted with skeletons of old ships, the film is framed at odd angles, with the B&W widescreen images randomly bathed in washes of sepia, yellow, blue and green. Helmer and production designer Alexander Manasse have created a formidable world within the cathedral-like baths building, which contains a maze of corridors, compartments and stairwells, full of strange contraptions and clanking machinery.
But despite its elaborately constructed atmosphere and its endless quirks, the narrative feels insubstantial and the characters insufficiently defined and developed, leaving nothing to admire but the visual flair. Speaking a language that ranges from nonsensical noises to Central Europeanized English, the multinational cast embrace the lunatic spirit of the material, but their broad silent-comedy shtick becomes monotonous.