Catrinel Marlon - The Whistlers - hero image - Vlad Cioplea.jpg
Stories & Ideas

Tue 24 Nov 2020

Cracking the code: director Corneliu Porumboiu on 'The Whistlers'

Craft Film Interview
Dilan Gunawardana - Stories & Ideas
Dilan Gunawardana

Digital Editor, ACMI

We spoke to the Romanian New Wave director about language, artistry and his unique take on film noir.

In The Whistlers, a police investigator working on both sides of the law gets involved in an intricate money-laundering plot. First, he must learn Silbo Gomero, an ancient whistling language of the Canary Islands, to keep out of earshot of the authorities.

At a glance, all the hallmarks of mainstream noir are rendered in the marketing for the film: a femme fatale holding a gun, a grizzled middle-aged cop, a heist plot… but throughout the core concept run those channels of subversive wit, deep insight, and "meticulous observations of lost men and their absurd search for fulfilment" (as Alonso Aguilar puts it in Notebook) that characterise a Corneliu Porumboiu film. On top of that there are loving nods to cinema, opera and even commentary on the director’s homeland, Romania, and its denizens, still darkened by the shadow of Ceaușescu.

As viewers, we’re left with the lingering sense, even on repeat viewings, that there is even more to decipher and discover. Perhaps this is one for the YouTube film analysts. I spoke to Corneliu Porumboi to learn more about his love of language, film artistry and the enigma of The Whistlers.

Dilan Gunawardana: The Whistlers is described as a noir film and a “crime caper”, but I feel like there's something deeper going on beneath all that; it feels like I'm trying to crack a code (like the whistling language itself). For people who are thinking about watching the film, how would you describe what The Whistlers is, how did you approach making it?

Corneliu Porumboiu: Okay, it's how long … a year and a half since I finished it, so I have to go back a little bit. It’s a story about a corrupt police officer who's trying to escape using this language, this whistling, which is an ancient language that comes from an island, La Gomera.

I saw a TV show 10 years before I really started to work on this project, about La Gomera, in which they were also speaking about the whistling language. I started to read about this language, and in fact, around the world there are maybe 40 places where people communicate by whistling. But we don't know the origin of that whistling language because the island was colonised in the 15th century by the Spanish and so from that point on, the whistling language codes Spanish.

In my mind I was speculating on something primary … a way to communicate. I was thinking about this primitive language, the whistling language, as something before [conventional] languages, in a way. Maybe it's a solution that they [the inhabitants of La Gomera] found to communicate in a hostile medium.

La Gomera (image credit: Vlad Cioplea)

La Gomera (image credit: Vlad Cioplea)

DG: It seems like you have a fascination with language, as expressed in your films. I understand you grew up in Romania during the Ceaușescu era (1965–89). Did you feel like the use of language was restricted for you and people you knew?

CP: Of course. I was growing up in a medium where there was, let's say, an “official language”. There’s an expression in Romanian: “wooden language” or langue de bois. It was like some formula, a certain way of speaking. Of course, there were people who were speaking back, but [many] were afraid to tell the truth. For example, if we talked politics at home, all the time my parents or my grandparents told me not to talk outside about some topics, to take care and things like that. So, of course, all my [films] are related to language, and I think maybe my past [accounts] for this. But of course, Romania, through the revolution 30 years ago, passed through a transition period and things don't change suddenly, from day one, so maybe [my films] are related to that also.

DG: The Whistlers centres on this character Cristi (played perfectly by Vlad Ivanov), who’s the same character, the police captain, from one of your previous films Police, Adjective (2009). In that film he's strong and assured, and he's a defender of the state laws and he uses 'official' language to humiliate people – as we saw in the famous dictionary scene near the end of that film. But in The Whistlers, he's much more subdued. Can you describe his journey across the two films?

CP: When he was younger, in a way, he had a certain type of ideology and he tried to impose a certain type of law. When I started to work on [The Whistlers], I said, okay, what if we find this guy, who was very sure at one point, completely different after a gap, after, let's say, a renunciation of something – his ideals, his way of seeing things. And after that, I thought, yeah, he wants to make money, and so he became a corrupt officer. I wanted to [show] a completely different face, a completely different ... the other side of the Moon, if you want.

DG: He also seems so passive in The Whistlers… like he's being dragged along against his will from moment to moment. And I think what marks his varying emotional states is the music, especially. It's used so well to mark the end and beginning of sequences; it's also diegetic... Looking into the arias that were chosen for the soundtrack and it seems like some of the lyrics relate to Cristi’s mindset or state of loss, or his relation to other characters like Gilda (played by Catrinel Marlon). For example, a section from ‘L'ho perduta, me meschina’ from Mozart’s Figaro roughly translates to: “I have lost it. Woe is me. Who knows where it is? I can't find it. I've lost it. Miserable little me.” Then there’s ‘Casta Diva’: “He'll fall. I can punish him, but my heart doesn't know how to punish.” And then there’s Iggy Pop's ‘The Passenger’ which kicks off the film, and Cristi seems very much like a passenger throughout the story. Were these choices intentional? Can you talk a bit about the process of choosing the music for the film?

CP: I do my own research. Cristi’s very blank in a way... I was thinking a lot about his character; he's fifty, he doesn't have a family, he’s alone. At the same time, he can't even [change] because he knows that he’s doing bad things. I wanted to create a certain type of counterpoint with the music and his face, which is almost all the time without any expression, because at the end of the day, at his age, he knows “the codes”, he knows the rules and he's really just trying to survive, and he’s falling in love with this girl (Gilda). I wanted it to be that type of almost impossible relationship. Both of them are coming into this rollercoaster... he sacrifices for her… in a way [that’s] the core of the story. With the music, I wanted to play with that, and as I mentioned, in the beginning he's cautioned and knows how to play, but he's losing the hand… his confidence is lost in a way. And I played with the music to create a certain type of mood.

The cast of The Whistlers 2 - Vlad Cioplea

Paco's thugs accost Cristi in La Gomera (image credit: Vlad Cioplea)

DG: Yeah, it's interesting … it feels like he's almost gone through a rebirth in a way, like he needed to go through Hell first before finding some sort of peace. Would you agree?

CP: Yeah, of course, he’s getting there, but in a certain way he can’t ... That's because the end, the last chapter, is the limit. You’ll never know if it’s a dream or if it’s real.

I was thinking about creating an idea, a type of paradise, from the beginning; a false paradise, a certain thing from the future. In a visual way, we [mark] each chapter like the colours of the rainbow, and you could see there are all these colours there in the Gardens [referring to the final scene taking place in the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore], so there was also a construction we built around colours in music.

In one of the first versions of the script I wanted to have ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ as the song [playing in the Gardens], but that didn't work because the lights in the Gardens are synchronised with a certain type of music. I thought, when I got there, that maybe it's better like that. So, from the beginning, I wanted to finish this film in a certain type of false paradise.

DG: Yes, one of the things that really sticks in my mind is the striking use of colour throughout – the sets, the clothing, the locations, the “chapter” title cards. I understand that the artist Arantxa Etcheverria (your wife) was the artistic director on the film?

CP: Yes.

DG: Her involvement explains the very bold and rich colours in the film, for example, Gilda's femme fatale red dress. Can you discuss your professional collaboration with her over your recent films? What artistic sensibilities does she bring to complement your directorial style?

CP: Yeah, we worked together on the last two films (The Treasure also). She studied scenography at school in France (she's French) and for [The Whistlers], reading the script, she asked me, "Why don't you use for each chapter… not a dominant colour, but to play with one colour, when combined, will be a rainbow, because in a way, it's like a journey of the character." Looking from a distance, I had this impression of an arc for the character, so I liked this concept a lot. At the same time, of course, you are trying not to push it too much. We wanted to use it both as characterisation and to give a spirit of each chapter.

It was quite a fine tuning that she did with the scenography and the costume design, because it was also something musical in a way, to use that colour – not to be very obvious, but to be [understated] – to accentuate things in some locations, or in an important scene... to have red on red or yellow on yellow, things like that, to give drama in that sense also.

[Our collaboration] works fine because we speak often and because she knows my scripts from the beginning, my ideas. Even if she doesn't read it, we talk about subjects… she tells me about her work and being home and talking from time to time about each other’s projects…. it's quite easy.

The cast of The Whistlers - Vlad Cioplea

The cast of 'The Whistlers' (image credit: Vlad Cioplea)

DG: Speaking of production, I understand that one of the producers on this was Maren Ade, who directed Toni Erdmann (2016)…

CP: Yeah, she's a co-producer, because we had also money from Germany, yeah.

DG: What else did she bring to the film?

CP: Oh, we were speaking about the script and after that she helped with financing the film, and her company in Germany did applications. We’ve known each other for a long time, and we speak about each other’s projects when we have time. And we are friends.

DG: Just thinking about your particular directorial style, there's a really interesting bit of dialogue when Cristi's speaking to the motel clerk (István Teglas) while opera music is playing loudly in the lobby: "You're not worried about losing customers with this sort of music?” And the clerk replies, “On the contrary, we're trying to educate them.” I feel like this is your statement about your own filmmaking in a way. Do you think that's accurate?

CP: No, that one… the story with the motel… because I know even though it's quite a mess [referring to the nonlinear narrative], I know exactly what is happening, so I thought, "Okay, so these two guys will buy this motel because they will go and will hide the money there, so that was the plan." And because it's a motel, people are coming to screw around, and so I thought, "Okay, how will they do that without anyone bothering them?” They will play opera. That was that [laughs]… If they want to do drug dealings and things like that to avoid people, they will play opera.

DG: I see. That hotel clerk’s an interesting little character as well… He's very strange in a lot of ways, but smart – an opportunist who’s also caught in this world, like Cristi.

CP: He’s a very good actor. He played it like [Anthony Perkins in] Psycho. When I made this film, I thought, “Okay, I will make a film also about some gangsters. A few of them will be signified.” I think when you are living in a world in which you are surveilled, a way for Gilda and for these guys to track this is to play a part like in a classical film. Gilda’s not even her real name, but it's good for her to play with this, with an archetype of cinema, in a way, and to play a convention in order to survive. It's the same for these guys; [the motel clerk] plays the Psycho guy [laughs].

I wanted to do the shower scene because I said, "Okay, this guy has seen the film. If he gets into a motel room and hears the shower, because he’s seen the film, he will go straight to the shower and...” That was the point of how cinema influenced them… with these characters, they start at one point to believe in that and lose their own identity, like the motel clerk. With Gilda it's something else… I play a lot with these ideas.

DG: I feel there's a real love and appreciation of cinema within your films. For example, I've noticed that a few directors popping up, like the character of Paco played by the Spanish director Agustí Villaronga. What type of filmmakers do you admire and are there any today that really resonate with you?

CP: Yeah. The Coen brothers, for example. I adore them. Tarantino, I like very much. Safdie brothers… there are a lot in Europe: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers, Michael Haneke… There are a lot of good movies and directors.

Corneliu Porumboiu directing The Whistlers with Catrinel Marlon

Corneliu Porumbiou and Catrinel Marlon on the set of 'The Whistlers' (image credit: Vlad Cioplea)

DG: The Whistlers is noticeably more fast-paced than your previous films, and I read in some of the reviews that it’s more “accessible”. Do you agree? And was this your attempt to bridge the gap between the western mainstream audiences and your work or was it just a style that you adopted to tell the story that you wanted?

CP: Mainly, it came from the story, the genre. Even with, for example, The Treasure, for me it was a certain type of Western in a way. It has a certain type of reference… in that film, there are some guys that have to rediscover the same land over and over, and to create a certain type of spiral. It was a thought I had that you could see it at the end, also because it's like a spiral with the last movement of the camera.

I was thinking a lot about non-action, for example Police, Adjective was also in some sense a reflection of police films, but it was also inspired by the reality. When I was speaking with police officers, I realised that they watched a lot and they spent more of their time waiting than actually “acting”. So, I was also playing with that and the way that they have to report, because they are forced to see the things in a certain way.

But all the time I'm thinking about the genre because at the end of the day… there have been films for more than 100 years and there are so many good films, brilliant films, genius films, and so I cannot think of that when I'm doing movies. I think [The Whistlers] is more frontal in a way, the repetition on the genre, it was more direct .. because I wanted to create a certain type of chaos and to play with that and this kind of dreamlike atmosphere. I think it's more anchored to a certain type of noir.

DG: What's next for you?

CP: I don't know yet. I don't have something now I'm working on. I'm quite open and I like to try different things, because I change. My films are quite different... I also did documentaries… but I don't have something yet that’s a subject. I'm quite open when I have the core of the film; I could change things in between. For me, from the beginning, I'm interested in the core and what I want to say at the end and what I want to question. I still haven’t found that. Maybe it will be a musical or it could be a comedy. Maybe I will return in a certain type of comedy that I made it in the beginning, I don't know.

Dilan Gunawardana edits ACMI's Stories & Ideas section. He is an arts writer and digital publisher, and a former Deputy Editor (arts/digital) of Australian Book Review (2017–18). Follow him on Twitter.

The Whistlers is available to rent on Cinema 3

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