I first discovered the work of Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu in 2009 when his film Police, Adjective was released. The searching, intellectual cop film focuses on a young officer named Cristi who questions the ramifications of busting a couple of teenagers for drugs. In doing so, however, he creates an inner ethical crisis that happens alongside a punishingly philosophical monologue on the meanings of words from his chief that takes up the entire last section of the film. What struck me at the time (though I couldn’t put my finger on it then) was the searing dreariness the film conjures: it is both deadly critical of the old political regime’s methods and somehow simultaneously empathetic. I was hard-pressed to find another film that was as playful, sincere, and rigorous in its look at the failings of lexical demarcations.
Porumboiu’s newest film, The Whistlers, (2019) is a wonderful fusion of noir and poetic investigations into the way we communicate. While it tracks the story of a doublecrossing cop (also named Cristi) and several other parties in pursuit of a mattress full of money, it’s also a much deeper look at the way we apprehend signs and symbols, here via an indigenous whistling language from the Canary Islands. The film’s title refers to a group of thieves who are adopting the whistling language as a means of secret communication. As with his other films, The Whistlers is a work that is as enigmatic as it is entertaining. At the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where his newest film The Whistlers was having its North American premiere, I got to sit down with Porumboiu and talk through some of this film and others, discussing, among other things, social roles his characters play, games, and the shape of this excellent new work.
Anthony Hawley (Rail): I was thinking a lot about how so many of your characters are trying to work through definitions—definitions of themselves, definitions of history, definitions of language. They’re trying to work it all out. We see this very directly in Police, Adjective, when they’re sifting through definitions of words, but also in other films—for instance, the talk show in 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), and in the opening scene of When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013) when the main character is trying to define film and how he sees.
Corneliu Porumboiu: And life. Or, in 12:08,they’re trying to define the revolution.
Rail: Right. And then in The Whistlers, they’re trying to define the subtleties of this coded whistling language.
Porumboiu: Yes. But in a way I was thinking that the characters in this one don't have any questions. The characters are not trying to define something like in the other films. I wanted to create a type of world in which the language is used for a specific purpose. It’s used to take advantage of someone, to get information.
Rail: They’re clearly trying to con someone, but there are still so many nuances to this whistling language that they have to learn; for example, in the vowels, it takes the main character a while to get it right.
Porumboiu: I wanted to structure this new film around that process—how the main character learns the letters of this language. He knows very well the codes of his world, of the police, of double-crossing. But, at the same time, this learning process will transform him. I was thinking about structuring the film in this way. Because with that you go back.
Rail: Go back? Like learning a language from the very beginning?
Porumboiu: Yes. Because after he starts learning, you get the story—what was happening before, etc. I wanted the structure to be around him, the language and the way that he's learning it, you know? And of course, in the end he's learning it for something. At the end it will be necessary because that’s the only way he can express himself.
Rail: Because he loses everything else.
Rail: So that led to the structure with the different sections as well? In a way it’s a fairly enigmatic structure. Though maybe not, because if you learn a language you have to learn everything?
Porumboiu: There are chapters and each one is the name of a character who influences him in this story. I was speaking to my wife who’s a visual artist and the art director of the film and we made a schematic for the structure such that it’s like he’s going across a bridge. And for that bridge we wanted to use the colors of the rainbow in a certain order to underline certain things in the story.
Rail: As in the color spectrum?
Porumboiu: Yes. Then after that we decided that each chapter, dramaturgically speaking, has a color space. So the motel, for example, is yellow. Or sometimes color corresponds to a character. And sometimes we use it in a less defined way, but to underline this road or journey.
Rail: That's very interesting. In that sense, the structure is actually very straightforward.
Porumboiu: It's a double movement, you know? There is a movement of learning this language, but it's also a movement that he’s discovering as the film moves through the flashback.
Rail: It’s funny to think about all the TV thrillers and cop thrillers full of constant and rapidly changing technology and then this—just this whistling language made by using the hand—he’s learning this strange new language and there’s something so compelling about this code because it's not technological.
Porumboiu: It's old.
Rail: Yes, and analog.
Porumboiu: The island the language is from was colonized by the Spanish, and we don’t know what the original language was. It has something primal and human, something like pre-language. I was interested in using that in a very technological world.
Rail: Is the whistling language a real language?
Porumboiu: Yes yes, it’s a real one. It’s being protected by UNESCO and they’re trying to preserve it. Even give classes in it. Yes. The kids can learn it. I had a consultant when I was there and people learn it the way it was taught in the film. Teachers are coming from the mainland to learn it and teach it.
Rail: Maybe I'm wrong, but thinking about genre films and combined with the linguistic interests, it feels like a political or cultural critique of something bigger?
Porumboiu: Yes, of course. Thinking about the character from Police, Adjective, he suffers from this kind of philosophy that was bullshit; philosophy that’s power, and the character can’t take it for too long. And then I thought, how could I find this character ten years after, in this world? And then I thought that the principle of this new film is that the characters are kinds of mirrors; they never open themselves up, and it’s a kind of game. This brought me back to noir. And noir, maybe in the end, could be a good approach to things, especially after all the crises of the world. [Laughs] Then I thought, OK, let’s see how these characters could be inspired by the rules of noir. They’re playing the part from genre.
Rail: Many of the characters from other films are trying to step into a narrative, or figure out how to step into a narrative. Perhaps it’s a role, as in a “detective” or a “referee” and what that narrative and role entails.
Porumboiu: Gilda, she’s a femme fatale, but it’s an identity she has taken; we never know her name because she has assumed a role. She’s working on playing a part. It’s like that with the guy from the motel. He wants to escape from people, so he puts on the opera to play a role and works on that. Then after that I thought to push it into this form. At the same time, we are living in a world with cameras everywhere and with social media. Even though I’m doing this film about a very particular world, these guys have to know the codes of the larger one, too. And Cristi, the main character, he’s blank, but he knows where the cameras are hidden. I was very interested in making a film with characters who aren’t open with themselves and so I arrived at the genre that way.
Rail: That character guarding the hotel is such a perfect type, inviting everyone else into a different code: “You have to enter on my terms.”
Porumboiu: And at the same time, it’s very practical because certain people won’t go there.
Rail: It’s a way to keep them out.
Porumboiu: Yes, he says it’s about educating them, but… [Laughs] Of course, having all these stories, you want certain things not shown, not revealed. I saw The Big Sleep (1946) three or four times but I still didn’t get everything that was happening. [Laughs]
Rail: There are holes.
Porumboiu: Yes. The characters don’t always know what they really want. And they’re always double-crossing each other.
Rail: I see games, or strategizing about games, as such a big part of it, which brings me back to The Second Game (2014) and just thinking about “plays” (in the football sense). Making “moves” or strategizing about “plays” is such a big part of the films, too. It's almost like characters get lost in that, and there's a bureaucracy to it, but then there are people who are somehow able to move through that world. Are these new characters different from your earlier characters in that way?
Porumboiu: Much more now, yes, because I think in 12:08 and in The Treasure (2015) the characters have a certain type of naïveté. They are searching for something—a definition for “revolution,” or a treasure—but here I wanted to make them quite skeptical.
Rail: You mean they’re not searching?
Porumboiu: No, no, because the main character is pushed into the story. It was like his destiny. In this film I wanted to make characters who are strong in the way that they have this feeling that they control their destiny, but it's not actually like that. They are very serious, but at the same time they are in a very big game. A very critical one with no rules.
Rail: I’m curious to know where your general interest in language comes from?
Porumboiu: I think it came from my society. We are shaped by the language. You say something different and speak out and you’re punished. It’s all this structure, maybe. I was still a kid in the communist era when we still had this langue de bois [wooden language]. Even at school, in the way we were formed. For instance, if we were studying literature, they would tell us exactly what to think about it and you wouldn’t have an opinion. And this might be there from my past. The way the language shapes you and society. Of course, this langue de bois, we have now all over the world. [Laughs]