Thursday 7 May 2020

Let it all blow: "The Whistlers"

Corneliu Porumboiu's second film of the week - emerging in parallel with the documentary Infinite Football, reviewed here - finds a filmmaker who's hitherto pottered exclusively around his own backyard enjoying something of an awayday. (Someone might as well, given that everybody else has cancelled theirs.) The newfound sunniness of The Whistlers - set on the Canary Island of the original title La Gomera - reflects what initially seems a forward step into commercial genre territory. Though twists and tweaks become apparent, what we're presented with is a film noir played out in broad daylight, following the machinations of a crooked copper and a good-time gal named Gilda. The former, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, seared onto cinephile imaginations as the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days), is a Romanian police inspector with a foot apiece in the camps of law and disorder; the latter (Catrinel Marlon) an escort with criminal connections who invites Cristi to the Canaries to participate in a heist. That this will not be a straightforward affair is signalled by an extended flashback, carefully threaded through the main activity, which reveals Cristi is being surveilled by internal affairs over a bribe allegation, and that Gilda has links to someone the inspector previously set up. As if all this weren't tangled enough, the heist will involve nothing so cutting-edge as a two-way radio, but a form of whistling that appears to have originated with the island's shepherds and gone on to become a language all its own. Twists, tweaks and tweets, then.

That bizarre form of communication, detailed at length where some viewers are going to be expecting shootouts and car chases, chimes with that fascination with language Porumboiu foregrounded in the title of 2009's Police, Adjective. (Arguably, it was no less central to 2006's 12:08 East of Bucharest, set during the recording of a TV talk show.) This most curious of cases will involve not just the negotiation of international language barriers, but encrypted text messages and coded knocks on a hotel room door, and that's before Cristi hooks an index finger in his mouth and starts to blow. (Somewhere in the film's genesis, there slinks the elegant spectre of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.) Porumboiu goes about this study in linguistics with a sense of humour that feels like a deeply eccentric film's saving grace: no matter how many times his characters purse their lips, we always sense his tongue is pretty firmly in cheek. A conventional heist thriller would trouble to work in a scene where the protagonists work out what they're doing and where they're going using a table-sized map and various household objects - for the viewer's benefit, as well as their own. Porumboiu resists that to instead show us Gilda teaching Cristi where to put his fingers to yield the desired vowel sound, and the copper being manhandled into a warehouse and ordered to whistle at gunpoint. Close your eyes, and what you're listening to isn't the week's uppermost arthouse release, but an episode of The Clangers. By the closing credits, we really do seem to be on another planet.

All that risks the accusation that Porumboiu isn't taking this assignment especially seriously, that he's blowing off some of the responsibilities we associate with the festival-lauded auteur. (And a corollary question: if he's so interested in genre, why doesn't he make a straightforward genre film?) Certainly, The Whistlers starts out larky - muscling into similar territory to, say, Nick Love's Costa del Crime opus The Business, the effing and jeffing replaced by huffing and puffing - but it soon becomes insanely complicated, shuttling between characters and timelines; it forces us to piece it together as we would a charity shop jigsaw, hoping against hope that all the bits will be there. That parallel plotting is as artful and inveigling as the best noirs have been, allowing us to discover the trouble Cristi is in as he's getting in further trouble still. Yet Porumboiu increasingly seems less interested in tying together all these loose ends than playing with our understanding of the noir form, making a film about cinematic language. Is that why he has his characters walk into a screening of The Searchers, and throws in an obvious Hitchcock homage? In this return to basics, to cinema square one, we might perceive something not just self-reflexive but personal: Porumboiu is married to the local production designer Arantxa Etcheverria, and he surely knows what it is to have to learn a language and local customs, to start again from scratch. As with the whistling, as with the heavily enunciated Ute Lemper cover of "Mack the Knife" Porumboiu slaps on the soundtrack at one point, it may all be a matter of inflection and interpretation. That lesson is bound to induce headscratching in certain quarters, and may well require a little of the indulgence that is almost always required when filmmakers jet off to warmer climes. As Infinite Football underlines, Porumboiu is one of the few working directors uninterested in serving up meaning on a plate. If you're willing to play along - to parse and decode the film's multitudinous signifiers - there's a wonky sort of fun to be had here. If not, well: go whistle.

The Whistlers will be available to stream via Curzon from tomorrow.

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