Cannes 2024 review: Universal Language (Matthew Rankin)

“A deft blend of humor and pathos, Universal Language is an episodic odyssey into the human condition, crafted as a deeply moving tragicomedy about culture and identity, and how it can shift over time.”

As far as geographical location, cultural detail and overall existence are concerned, there are few countries more different than Canada and Iran, two nations that share very few similarities. However, the concept of bringing them together has resulted in a terrific experimental film. Director Matthew Rankin crafts an unforgettable story in which two wildly different cultures find themselves in a delightful collision, taking the form of Universal Language, a peculiar curio by one of Canada’s most intriguing artists. Following his directorial debut, the highly celebrated The Twentieth Century (as well as several short films produced over the years), Rankin once again makes a strong case for being one of the most exciting directors working today, with his unique visual style and penchant for challenging narrative conventions indicating a bright future as a filmmaker. This film serves as a tapestry of moments in the lives of various characters in Winnipeg, which Rankin reimagines as a town almost entirely engrossed in Iranian culture (drawing from the region of Manitoba’s prominent immigrant community), following their individual journeys over a short span of time. Told through shifting perspectives and employing increasingly offbeat narrative techniques, Universal Language is a tremendously captivating comedy about the lives of ordinary people, which the director posits are far more interconnected than our perspective may initially lead us to believe.  

Rankin belongs to a steadily growing canon of young artists that navigate the very narrow boundary between surrealism and reality, infusing their work with overtly absurd elements, but where the purpose isn’t to bewilder the viewer, but rather to unsettle the common narrative foundation on which these stories are normally built. There is a level of creativity that we find in Universal Language that is both challenging and endearing, often in tandem. Told across a series of increasingly quirky tableaux set in the snow-covered landscapes of Winnipeg (or rather, the director’s chosen approximation of the city), the film is driven by a sense of eccentricity in which nothing quite adheres to the rules of logic, yet remains perfectly comprehensible, at least in how it establishes a very specific narrative path. The most basic description of this film, as indicated by its title, is that of a love letter to this region of Canada and its people (and as we’ve seen in the oeuvre of Guy Maddin, another great filmmaker who hails from this city, Winnipeg is a truly unique corner of the country), a woven tapestry of various lives that intersect and create a poignant series of moments that build to a striking conclusion.

While the first act is dedicated to introducing us to the various characters that occupy the film, Universal Language soon begins to take shape once the connections between them become clear. The theme that Rankin seems to be most interested in exploring is that of homecoming – the central motif is based around a character (ostensibly based on the director, bearing his name and being played by Rankin himself) returning home to visit his ailing mother, and encountering a number of slightly awkward and increasingly peculiar scenarios as he comes back to a city he no longer recognizes. The film evolves into the story of a cultural vagabond aimlessly wandering through the streets that defined his childhood, which have changed in ways that are undeniably positive, but which cause a sense of disorientation in his attempt to find meaning in this supposedly triumphant moment of homecoming. Even his efforts to return to his childhood home prove challenging, with the sensation of being a stranger in his own home, his place now occupied by someone else, in a startling reality that leads to the film’s most poignant moments. The extent to which Rankin is questioning his place in his past remains to be seen, but the foundation of Universal Language is built on challenging common ideas about homecoming and showing how it is not as easy a process as we may initially anticipate.

There are many layers to Universal Language, and it takes quite some time for us to become acclimated to its perspective – but once we have reached the heart of the story, the experience becomes simultaneously euphoric and unnerving, a purposeful decision on the part of the director. In terms of both the visual and thematic concepts, this film is exceptionally creative, using clear cues to tell its story. It often seems inspired by a very specific kind of miserabilist dark humor that we find in Scandinavian cinema (there are certainly echoes of directors such as Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismäki in terms of both tone and visual composition), whereby stone-faced characters find themselves enmeshed in increasingly off-kilter situations that are quite uncanny. It’s a hopeful film, and even at its most downbeat there’s a degree of optimism that the director ensures is just as present as the more unconventional elements. This ultimately results in a film that is certainly very warm and encouraging in its central themes, but never comes across as inappropriately sentimental or heavy-handed, instead examining these characters from a unique but earnest perspective. The framing is unusual and the use of a distinctive color scheme underlines the tone of the film, which is closely aligned with the story and its examination of the banality of everyday life, following our protagonists as they come to question their own identity and ultimately surrender to the pleasant dullness of their day-to-day existence.

As a filmmaker, Rankin’s greatest strength is his ability to craft films that are visually unique and emotionally dynamic, and even at its most challenging, Universal Language is defined by a certain underlying tenderness. The affection shown to these characters is noticeable, and the clear lack of cynicism prevents the film from becoming too overwrought, and instead allows it to be told with the kind of wit and candor that we would expect from such an unconventional premise, albeit one where the lingering sadness never trails too far behind the humor. We often find that the most meaningful commentary comes in the moments where not a single word is spoken, with the silence saying more than enough about these characters and their position in this version of the world that the director carefully curates, hoping to unearth the answers to seemingly impossible questions. A deft blend of humor and pathos, Universal Language is an episodic odyssey into the human condition, crafted as a deeply moving tragicomedy about culture and identity, and how it can shift over time, especially when returning home and making the startling realization that time creates distance and that it is possible to become a stranger in your own home without the right connections being maintained. Evoking a sense of melancholy and discomfort that is profoundly effective, and never contradictory to the more eccentric aspects of the film, Rankin’s careful and methodical analyses of these characters and their peculiar existence result in a poignant and heartfelt film, capturing surprising aspects of everyday life in a vibrant and unconventional manner that only lends firm support to Rankin’s inevitably extraordinary future in the medium.