At first glance, the German film Tuvalu looks to be a direct descendant of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, as well as Jeunet's recent solo smash Amelie. The feature-length debut from Veit Helmer, who's won a string of awards for his short films, is photographed in gorgeous sepia tones and stocked with expressively peculiar-looking faces amid decaying erstwhile locales, conjuring a surreal yet cheerful netherworld.
Look closer, however, and Helmer's film owes as much to the silent era of Chaplin and Keaton as to Caro and Jeunet. Tuvalu is not literally a silent picture, for it boasts an eclectic array of distinct sounds: splashing water, the tap of a blind man's cane on a tile floor, the whistle of a ship. The noises stand out because there is virtually no dialogue in the entire movie, save for the occasional one-word interjection. As the characters mime, gesture and act out in lieu of talking, Tuvalu takes on a heightened sense of unreality, as much like a puppet show or an improv comedy sketch as a motion picture.
The story centers on a crumbling European bathhouse, where a young man named Anton (Beau Travail's Denis Lavant) tries to patch the never-ending holes in the floor and fix the collapsing ceiling while employing an elaborate ruse of sound effects to convince his blind father (Philippe Clay) that the empty bathhouse is actually full. Meanwhile, Anton's evil brother, Gregor (Terrence Gillespie), is trying to close down the family business so he can build something new and more profitable there. Oh, and Anton is falling in love with a sprightly young bathhouse patron (Chulpan Hamatova) and wants to sail away with her.
Even at a brisk 86 minutes, Tuvalu feels better-suited as a film short and, as with Caro and Jeunet's work, the whole endeavor relies a little too heavily on syrupy artifice. Yet there's no denying that Helmer has crafted a charming and extraordinarily conceived throwback to a forgotten era when words took a back seat to action.
Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899. Friday- Thursday, April 12-18.