When I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Corneliu Porumboiu, writer and director of the delightful film The Whistlers, it was the first time in my writing career I ever felt I shouldn’t come too heavily prepared with questions. I didn’t want answers from the filmmaker at the vanguard of the Romanian New Wave about his new work. Since The Whistlers is all about dualities, paradoxes and contradictions, what I really wanted was to simply engage in dialogue around all that the film raises. Luckily, Porumboiu indulged my odd request rather than scoffing at it.
Some quick background on this off-kilter crime caper before jumping into our conversation: The Whistlers follows the exploits of Vlad Ivanov’s crooked Romanian police inspector Cristi as he sets off to claim a bounty of drug money in the far-off Canary Islands. In order to get his hands on this coveted prize, he’ll have to learn a coded language of whistles that’s both simple and secretive. Along his winding path, Porumboiu has his protagonist confront any number of deceptive double agents, absurd situations, and self-serious archetypes from movie genres. It’s an uncategorizable delight, and it was an honor to dive deeper into the rich text with the filmmaker himself.
Is duality baked into The Whistlers from the beginning just given that it’s part of a genre where people are so often not what they appear, their alliances change, and dark underbellies emerge?
Yeah, when I choose this setup of drug dealings and police vs. mobsters, trying to kill each other if it’s possible, of course I played with that. I need this type of world [that’s] very on the edge. That [applies] also for the whistling, how to code and use whistling in a very borderline situation.
On the one hand, the whistling language Cristi has to learn connects people in such a straightforward and blunt way, but it’s also much simpler and more primitive form of communication. As someone who thinks a lot about language, do you think this is regression, progress, or somehow both?
I saw it in a way that, OK, my character will be sincere for that. On the other hand, I said this type of simplicity – at the end of the day, the film is about the process of learning this language. But, at the same time, the language became necessary not to use for the way that he wanted. It became more than that for him. But this process of learning the language, to simplify things…I think in my mind, it has to [make sense] for the character. So, through this process of learning, we go back like a puzzle through some situations from before [via flashbacks]. I wanted to have this movement through and for the character learning this language in a more simple way and clarifying him at some points.
It’s as if simplicity of the whistling language unlocks something within himself.
Yes, and he has to have straight [black and white] choices because he is a dual character. He’s someone you feel didn’t choose in his life. He doesn’t have a family or an identity. It’s something that is missing. The strongest characters in the film are the women, most like archetypes. The mother, Gilda [a femme fatale played by Catrinel Marlon] and the prosecutor [Rodica Lazar’s steely Magda, who’s in the mold of Marlene Dietrich], he’s in between all that.
The whistling language seems to also lack nuance of expression, although it does facilitate clearer and less ambiguous dialogue between people because you can’t mistake meaning.
Yes, and at the end of the day, it’s a payoff that he has [from learning and conversing in it]. He will communicate just like that.
Is this to be taken as any kind of statement on the direction we’re headed in with language or communication?
No. What I think…there’s something poetic about the whistling language. Closer to nature and our roots. Sometimes, I think maybe it’s good to see that also. Or to gain back something.
Let’s talk about technology. You make a lot of the irony that technological advancements to monitor behavior are driving the characters back into this arcane form of communication so they can go undetected. What led you to this observation? Why did you make it such a key part of The Whistlers?
I was thinking that a few of the characters would try to be like characters from the movies. Gilda, it’s not her name, she tries to be the femme fatale and play a part for the cameras. The same for the guy from the motel, he’s playing a part of being untouched for the others. I wanted to have a certain type of tension between a certain type of surveillance camera and also the fact that the camera in the beginning weren’t cameras made for making films. I wanted to play with that.
Do you think the fact that we, like Gilda, acknowledge the fact that there’s always a camera around watching us turns us into actors in our own lives?
I think nowadays, more and more, public space is full of cameras. The way we have these (picks up his phone) and use social media, we act. We live in a society in which we are most preoccupied by using this eye of the camera, it’s more and more important. Of course, there are some reasons after terrorist attacks to have all this, but on the other hand, we don’t know where we go for private space at the end of the day. It’s shrinking more and more. It’s not my taste, but maybe it’s a reflection of this growing society in the eye of the camera. In other days, it was the eye of the god. (chuckles)
Let’s move to your use of humor in The Whistlers. You have a real dry absurdity that arises from grounding the character’s actions in reality, but you’ve also said that “humor enables cinema to take a step back from reality.” How are you approaching the comedy in The Whistlers so that it makes sense both for the audience and the characters?
My characters are very serious. So serious. Sometimes the comedy is in between their desires and the reality of things, like in Infinite Football [Porumboiu’s 2018 documentary about a former Romanian soccer star’s attempts to change the rules of the sport to reduce injury] or 12:08 East of Bucharest [Porumboiu’s breakout debut feature from 2006 where characters revisit their role – or lack thereof – in the fall of the country’s dictator]. What we imagine that we are doing and what we are, this clash for the audience is very funny. At the same time, here humor is more like absurd situations because I think each character in his own way thinks he controls his own destiny like a small god. In fact, all of them are trapped in a destiny that pushes them [away from what is] right. A certain type of humor is coming from this type of absurd situation the characters don’t expect. Also, by using the music, I have some very good moments. But, for me, humor comes natural. I like to have this distance and for the audience to have a certain type of distance from the characters.
When it comes to genre, you’re embracing the thriller or spy caper with tropes like the femme fatale and the globe-trotting adventure, but you’re also undercutting it with some cheekiness in your references to films like Psycho. How do you strike a balance between providing the pleasures we come to expect from genre films and subverting them, too?
Ah, that was a problem. I don’t know if I did it! That is for you to say.
We are living in a world that is shaped by the cinema. Some of my characters are shaped by the cinema. And sometimes by shitty films. Speaking of Hitchcock, I said if I [as a character] go into a motel room and I hear the shower, I will go straight to the [bathroom] because of the film [Psycho]. When I was writing the script, I thought, “You can’t do that.” But I said, it’s thematic. There’s also a reaction of the prosecutor when she saw he’s leaving, she’s looking at the cowboys – for her, it was [the famous opening shot of] The Searchers. We are shaped, in a way, by cinema, and I wanted to play with that in the film. I found it important.
No spoilers, but let’s talk about that final scene, specifically about the setting. It takes place in highly futuristic architecture in Singapore…but you’ve also emphasized that you wanted it to be a garden. Why this contrast of the natural with the modern?
From the beginning, I wanted to have something in Asia. I had the feeling that I would find something there. I searched in Shanghai and Hong Kong for some post-modern architecture. But, at one point, I found this one that was brilliant. I wanted this character, coming from the past, to arrive in this strange paradise. I found this garden that was perfect with the trees and lighting. I wanted to use “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida,” it was in the script, but I chose what they had in the program because I wanted to fit the lighting design and the music. I thought it was good because it had a certain kind of humor.
You’ve mentioned that the genesis of The Whistlers comes somewhat from considering where a character from your 2009 film Police, Adjective would be 10 years later. Does that make the film a kind of “spiritual sequel” at all?
In the way of the character, no, because I think the character from Police, Adjective [a legalistic police captain played by The Whistlers star Vlad Ivanov] has a certain type of ideology. He came from another world, but he can’t last. I had this character in my mind because it was kind of funny. I didn’t close that film [in my mind]. Starting here, I said to Vlad, the actor, this type of ideology can’t last. Let’s say we find him in 10 years, completely different and in a completely different world. I started with that.
A film like Police, Adjective cuts out a lot of the traditional entertainment of a genre film like the police procedural. You leaned in more with your last narrative feature, The Treasure, to the Western or the treasure hunt capers. But The Whistlers really pulls out all the stops in terms of embodying the spy thriller form. Were you consciously looking to do something that was a more full-throated embrace of things you’d previously avoided?
It was coming with the subject. Because whistling is a coded language, and all the time I made a certain type of parallel to the cinema, which is coding, at one point, a reality. These genre things, I also think of Police, Adjective in terms of genre. It’s about the timing. And The Treasure was an obliquely funny way to look at the Western. Here also, I felt it was important to go into that vein. But it was necessary because to make a film about people who double-cross and don’t tell the truth, and about a world I think changed a lot after the [financial] crisis.
It was obligatory for me to look back at these films, even if I chose other things to do. Of course, in the beginning, I was curious to see old films and rewatch things I hadn’t seen in 10-15 years. Like homework I had to do as a director. When I knew the principle that people would double cross and have their own interests, I had to look back.
You’ve talked about, in both this film and others, how your characters’ journeys often result in them realizing they are not in control of their destiny. Once we come to this truth, how should we react as the audience? Terror, resignation, despair, relief?
I think that, of course, they are also the product of their past decisions. For the audience, I like [them] to laugh sometimes, maybe to be sad. I don’t know, like older films, to have a certain type of emotion and empathy with these characters somewhere in the middle? [Cristi’s] a guy that’s not very funny, not that type of hero. I wanted a kind of sadness. I love the structure of films where you don’t understand the beginning. I felt it’s pertinent to the film and to the destiny of my characters where there is something above them.
I think there’s always something about watching a film where a hero is always a product of their own decisions and in control of what happens to them. In reality, life is more complicated than that. We’re shaped by things bigger than us and out of our control.
Yes, but here, at the end of the day, they feel the most powerful when they feel they are an archetype. The mother, the femme fatale. It’s in between this.
The Whistlers opens in select theaters on February 28, 2020.
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