Cannes 2019 review: The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

When Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) meets Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) for the first time, he doesn’t know what to think: this statuesque figure of an elegant woman, not only because of her dresses but also because of her posture, her confidence, the way she generally behaves. Someone is following Cristi; he knows it and she knows it too. So this is the set-up: they start acting as if she was his mistress. This farce must even continue at his home because of hidden cameras spread throughout his fancy but sad apartment, and the two end up in bed in order to preserve the appearances. What is really happening is that Gilda needs Cristi to move to Spain and find Zsolt, who disappeared with 30 million euros.

With The Whistlers, director Corneliu Porumboiu continues to establish himself as one of the most clever and funny directors out there. His latest effort is a witty comedy noir which echoes Hitchcock (and Melville and others) in a sophisticated yet accessible way. On the same path he took with his equally entertaining The Treasure, which was selected in Un Certain Regard four years ago, the Romanian director constructs a solid mystery imbued with the absurd, without becoming surreal despite these premises.

The way Porumboiu picks elements, ideas or mere intuitions from the genre is quite interesting, since he knows how to transform what he borrows to something of his own. For example, the narrative structure on paper could strike one as distracting, but eventually splitting the narrative into chapters, one for each of the main characters, makes a significant contribution to the potential comical soul of the film. Each chapter is titled after their names, but it’s not there to introduce someone as much as it is to take the story further.

Proof of the aforementioned intelligence is that Porumboiu keeps us busy with enough information so we can follow the sequence of events even without trying to rationalize more than is necessary. At the point where the audience starts to understand what is in Cristi’s mind, they will want to understand whether it would be possible for him to have his plan succeed, whatever it might be, or if he’s going to be smashed by the many things he can’t control – and there are many. Truth unravels one scene after another, while at the same time each scene seems meticulously organized, working together so well, which is a clear confirmation that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

No lesson to learn, The Whistlers is an exercise in genre, much aware of the gimmicks it employs. Like a game, Porumboiu enacts a masterful example of what one can do when playing with structures and topoi while at the same time not letting them limit his/her own process. In such an environment it becomes easier to achieve the unpredictability whose importance ends up being enormous. The contrast between the seriousness of the actors’ performances and the ridiculousness of many scenes is spot on, and for a dark comedy like this finding that balance is paramount.

What to say, in conclusion, about the language Cristi has to learn (which, by the way, really exists)? It’s called El Silbo, a whistled language which can virtually replicate all the others. While less central than the title suggests, there are a few scenes, especially in the first part, involving some of the most exhilarating moments in the film; until the story turns romantic and this peculiar language serves its last purpose even then. That sort of flexibility is something Porumboiu is still experiencing himself in his filmmaking so far: he can adapt his humor to different situations, genres, even locations. Nonetheless his refined verve remains untouched, so poignant and amusing even during the credits.