Whereas Arnaud Desplechin found his unique artistic vision smothered by the conventions of the police procedural in his middling Oh Mercy!, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu uses the genre format to expand and enrich his own. In The Whistlers, Porumboiu updates the genre of the Cold War thriller to the era of mass surveillance and networked digitization. The title comes from corrupt Bucharest police officer Cristi’s (Vlad Ivanov) favoured means of communication; in an age where emails and phone conversations can be easily hacked into, recorded, stored, and re-circulated, whistling is the only safe way to spread messages you wish to keep off the grid. “The police will hear it and think the birds are singing,” says Christi’s partner, Kiko (Antonioni Buil), arguing that while most secret codes can easily be decrypted by advanced computer systems, whistling is too abstract to even be recognized as a language.
This is the form of communication which Cristi must master in order to traverse the underworld on the remote island of La Gomera, where criminals have been drawing from the whistling language of the aboriginal Guanche tribe to escape detection for centuries. Cristi, who is on a freelance job to break out an imprisoned businessman banished to the island, remains an outsider throughout the film. Like him, the audience is only drip-fed slim pieces of information about this culture; as in many of the best crime films, there is the impression of a grand criminal system which lies just beneath the visible surface. From there, the film expands into a vast web of intrigue, illegal schemes, and double crosses; a mafia boss is desperate to appoint Cristi as one of his goons, his suspicious police chief back in Romania is obsessively monitoring Cristi’s actions in the hopes of catching him in the act via hidden cameras planted in his room, and Cristi’s language teacher, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), embroils him in a plot to steal a fortune.
These strands get so complicated that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the plot, but Porumboiu is less interested in the unfolding of narrative detail than using the noir template as a vessel through which to explore his established thematic concerns: the nuances of language, the alienation of the immigration experience, and the application of cultural traditions into contemporary frameworks. In doing so, Porumboiu has placed one of his shaggy-dog everymen into a noir structure, a passive klutz who never quite realizes how deeply out of his depth he truly is.
Yet, The Whistlers is more than a mere pastiche. The film is infused with the same sense of deadpan slapstick seen throughout films like When Evening Falls in Bucharest and Police Adjective, with Porumboiu’s static, distanced camera and muted greyscale colour palette constantly in tension with the more absurdist elements of the action. The dissonance of seeing a neo-noir caper play out within comically mundane locations (a bureaucratic office floor, an abandoned playground, kitchsy living rooms) and captured in lengthy, plainly lit wide-shots is classic Porumboiu, while the drollness with which familiar narrative baits-and-switches play out is handled with incredible finesse. The film is comprised mostly of digressions, red herrings, and dead-ends — pockets of dead time which create the impression that the story is stalling. The stop-start rhythm, combined with the labyrinthine, Kafka-esque plotting, is very effective in capturing the affective experience of a very modern type of post-industrial alienation, with Cristi suspended between corporate, financial, and cultural currents he can never quite comprehend.
And Porumboiu offsets the playful humour with a deeply felt undercurrent of melancholy. The Whistlers may draw on the conventions of 70s/early-80s paranoid thrillers such as The Conversation, Blow-Out, and The Parallax View, but it pointedly upends the models of its predecessors. In The Whistlers, the surveillance network is not a grand, hidden organization — it is open, sprawling, and participatory. There is no single villainous organization behind the shady dealings exhibited in the film, but rather a vast series of various organizations employing digital surveillance devices to suit their own interests. Behind every revelation only lies another question, an endless rabbit hole of conspiracies and deceptions.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 28, 2019, as part of our coverage of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. The Whistlers is now available on VOD.