on April 27, 2001 by Michael Tunison
   A nightmarish fantasy in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children," German director-producer Veit Helmer's "Tuvalu" impresses with its ability to tell its loopy story almost completely in visual terms. Unfortunately, its hyperstylized imagery is too obviously derivative of earlier films for Helmer's first feature to stake out much new creative ground for itself .

   Written by Helmer and Michaela Beck, the comically surreal plot concerns the efforts of the shy, much-abused hero (Denis Lavant from "The Lovers on the Bridge") to keep his blind father's ramshackle bathhouse in business despite the constant obstacles placed in his way by government safety officials, his own weirdo family and the ruined building itself. Enter a fetching young bather (Chulpan Hamatova) with her own agenda: to gather the machine parts she needs to repair her boat and motor off to a new life on the South Sea island of Tuvalu.

   Shot in black-and-white, then colorized for an interesting tinted effect, "Tuvalu" takes place in the now-cliché vintage/post-apocalyptic setting familiar from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and other genre movies. The darkly humorous tone, visual design and even the quirky looks of the actors are particularly reminiscent of "Delicatessen," to the extent that "Tuvalu" plays almost like a continuation of Jeunet and Caro's 1991 black comedy. That said, Helmer and his excellent international cast demonstrate a definite knack for this kind of image-driven storytelling. "Tuvalu" is mostly staged as a silent film; in an amusing running gag, its few lines of dialogue are in various languages, while the characters do all their most important communication with gestures and nonverbal sounds. Helmer has clearly learned a lot from his influences, even if he's followed a little too closely in their footsteps this time around.    Starring Denis Lavant, Chulpan Hamatova, Philippe Clay and E.J. Callahan. Directed and produced by Veit Helmer. Written by Veit Helmer and Michaela Beck. An Indican release. Comedy/drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 86 min.

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