Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu talks The Whistlers
Josh Slater-Williams | On 08, May 2020
Following his breakthrough feature, 2006’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu has become known for veering between similarly satirical comedies, meta-textual documentaries (The Second Game, Infinite Football) and ostensibly more traditional dramas (Police, Adjective). His most recent film, The Whistlers, which premiered in competition against Parasite at Cannes, is a departure from all of them.
With a touch of the Coen brothers in tone, The Whistlers is a comedic noir with a twist: it’s largely set around La Gomera, a Canary Island with an ancestral language, “El Silbo Gomero”, based around whistling. Cristi (Police, Adjective star Vlad Ivanov) is a cop who’s a whistle-blower for the mafia, under police surveillance himself in Romania thanks to his ties to a shady businessman. Tasked with helping to get that same mobster out of prison – and lead the way to a hidden €30m stash – Cristi ventures to La Gomera to learn the coded language, so as to secretly communicate across long distances and stifle police detection.
It’s certainly an interesting hook for a heist movie, and viewers acquainted with the Romanian New Wave can rest assured that, while certainly a more mainstream crowd pleaser, The Whistlers does not see Porumboiu drop his eccentric streak.
With the film now available on Curzon Home Cinema, alongside his previous feature Infinite Football, we speak to Porumboiu about more than if he knows how to whistle like Lauren Bacall.
How did the idea for The Whistlers first originate?
My wife is French and I was in France during one summer. And on the TV I saw a report about the island of La Gomera, in which at one point they were showing some whistling things; whistling lessons and how the people from there can communicate like that. That was about ten years ago, around the time of Police, Adjective (2009), that premiere in Cannes and all this. I was curious about this language and I tried to find some things on the internet. In the end, I found just a book in Spanish, which was more precise in terms of language and the origin of it all.
So, years after that, I tried to write something. I went to the island and I started to dig into this subject. They teach the language in the schools. It’s a UNESCO Heritage site, so they introduced it in the schools. They teach it to the small kids and also to the teachers from the mainland who are coming there to teach other specialty subjects. So I was in touch with the head of this department of the whistling language – Kico Correa is his name, he ended up playing a small part in the film. I was in his classes and saw the way that he teaches. And afterwards, he came to Bucharest and he trained the actors.
Was there any research about the island you hoped to include in the film but weren’t able to?
It was interesting because there is a story about Columbus, that he went to La Gomera during his first trip to find America. He went from La Gomera, it was one of the last points of departure for that voyage where he was searching for paradise. So this is a type of backstory that is in my film. At one point I even had dialogue about that, but it didn’t work and I cut it during editing. It was something about how he was thinking that Earth is like a breast and if you wanted to find a paradise, that was like a nipple, you know. That was his philosophy.
The scope of the film is definitely larger than anything you’ve previously done. Did you like working at that scale?
Yes, it was interesting. It’s also not just about the scale of the production but also that I had a shootout scene; I had to plan out very different scenes to what I’d done before. So, it was interesting. I like it. I think I change a lot, so I’m trying to make very different projects. The movie that I did before, Infinite Football, is like a documentary made for €30,000. This one is huge in comparison.
How did you go about finding the chapter-based structure?
I was interested in putting language in the centre of the story. I wanted to have the character going to learn the language, the process of learning, and after that he wants to use this language for one purpose. And then at the end, this language is becoming more important for him and, not to spoil the story, necessary. So that was the structure in a way. And in that structure, I wanted, also, to have a certain type of movement in which I said, “Okay, this character learning this language should also have a reflection about his own life.” So that gets me to split it into distinct chapters, and go into flashbacks.
The Whistlers is your first full-blown genre film. What’s been your relationship with genre cinema?
Like all of us, I watch and I like a lot of noir, Westerns… My film The Treasure, in a way, was a very oblique Western. I was thinking all the time that in a classical Western, people go to conquer a new territory. And in The Treasure, they have to conquer something that has been conquered before. The shape of that film is like a spiral, like the shape of the treasure.
With The Whistlers, I said, “Okay, I want to do a film about this kind of world in which all of them use language to get political angles, to get information, and to gain power over one another. So I said, “Okay, I have to go back to noirs.” So when I went back to noirs, there are a few of them that I watch from time to time, like The Third Man or The Night of the Hunter. I rediscovered Notorious, and after that The Big Sleep, which I adore. And others like Laura, Gilda, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon. Through these I found a proper angle for my film.
Do you have any favourite neo-noirs?
I like No Country for Old Men a lot, I think it’s a masterpiece. Inherent Vice is a good film. Taxi Driver is a neo-noir in a way. The Conversation is a film I like a lot that I think is also a kind of noir.
Could you talk a bit about Arantxa Echevarria Porumboiu, your wife, and her role as artistic director on the film?
It’s something more used in the French system, but it’s a role for someone who is dealing with all the set design, costumes and those visual production elements together. She’s a visual artist, so we are talking all the time because she’s the first person in the world with whom I speak about my ideas. And when I showed her one of the versions of the script, she suggested that each chapter should have… not a dominant colour but one that is more important to that section. All these colours put together are the colours of the rainbow, that you will find all together at the end of the film in the final scene.
Each chapter has a certain colour that explains the characterisation of a character, or sometimes in the action to create a certain rhythm; quite a musical rhythm with colors within these chapters. I really liked the idea, so she worked with these different departments on the film to apply this concept.