Cannes 2019: Corneliu Porumboiu's Hitchcockian Tale 'The Whistlers'
by Alex Billington
May 24, 2019
Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu has quickly established himself as one of the most unique and clever Eastern European directors making original films these days. Between Infinite Football last year, and his new feature at Cannes this year, Porumboiu has proven that his mind is unlike any other and is giving us some of the quirkiest, weirdest, smartest, and most interesting cinema that you'll discover in tiny art house cinema all over the world. His latest film is an adventurous dark comedy titled The Whistlers, a cops and criminals story from Romania about a double-crossing cop-criminal who is recruited to help get a guy out of jail in exchange for cash. For the first half I wasn't even sure where this story was going, but by the end it was obvious he was giving a nod to Hitchcock's quirky capers and classic film noir. And having fun doing so.
Porumboiu's The Whistlers is divided into a number of chapters separated by colorful & playful title cards, which appear rather unexpectedly throughout, going against the grain of any expected narrative. The main character we follow is Cristi, played by Vlad Ivanov, a veteran police detective recruited to help a crooked businessman get one of his underlings out of jail. The story jumps back and forth in time, introducing us to various characters who play a major role in the film - and in the heist. The next most important one is Gilda, played by Catrinel Marlon, who acts as the brains and the beauty, using her stunning, seductive looks to manipulate men. But she is more than just her looks and is a vital part of the story, good and bad. And like Hitchcock's stories, she becomes a love interest that moves the film along, which is where this is all headed.
The title is a reference to a special whistling language that Cristi is taught on a small island that's part of the Canary Islands. He's taught this language so he can communicate with the incognito "bad guys" during the heist and all the other cops & strangers won't know what's going on - it just sounds like birds chattering, they say. Though the whistling is distinct, and it's amusing to watch him try to learn. As serious as the film seems, it is one big comedy, even a smart satire. Porumboiu knows exactly what he's doing and he's having fun with it. He's blatant about his Hitchcock references and he's proud to show that this is his take on that kind of adventurous crime story where everything goes sideways and everyone is double-crossing everyone. That awareness makes it so much fun to watch, with hilarious scenes that are funnier than most comedies.
Anyone worried about New Romanian cinema being too slow or too dull, this film is the exact opposite. It's inventive and entertaining, full of fun and memorable characters, and a superb music selection. Porumboiu is pretty much a genius, we just live in his world now. And it's genuinely exciting to experience each of his films, there's just no way anyone can predict what's about to happen next. While there is nothing technically innovative about The Whistlers, aside from a few long shots, it is still an exceptional work that breaks the mold of what's expected and becomes great cinematic entertainment in gratifying ways. I really loved this film, one of my favorites of the Cannes Film Festival, from start to finish. At the end of it all it is a love story, but there's so much more it tackles about the good, and the bad, and how hard it is to just live a simple life.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 8 out of 10
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