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PRINT March 2020

film

SLEAZE EN ABYME

Corneliu Porumboiu, The Whistlers, 2019, 3.2K video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Center: Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) and Carlito (Cristóbal Pinto). Production still. Photo: Vlad Cioplea.

THE ROMANIAN DIRECTOR Corneliu Porumboiu may be the most epistemologically preoccupied filmmaker this side of Errol Morris, but having spent his first fourteen years living under the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Père Ubu–ist regime, his sense of the absurd is second nature.

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Porumboiu’s first feature, is predicated on a ridiculous controversy as to whether an actual revolution occurred in the director’s hometown. (The Romanian title translates as a question that might be the prelude to an Eastern European folktale: “Was There or Not?”) Police, Adjective (2009), the movie that confirmed Porumboiu’s international reputation, is an investigation of an investigation, hinging on the use of the word police as a noun, verb, or adjective. The wildly self-reflexive When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013) concerns the making of a never-made movie that uses footage of an actual endoscopy as fake evidence of the filmmaker’s supposed authenticity.

Porumboiu’s fondness for metaphysical farce and for the shifting rules of Wittgensteinian language games is equaled by his passion for soccer. The sport has provided him with material for two analytic documentaries: The Second Game (2014), wherein the filmmaker and his father, a retired soccer referee, annotate an ancient VHS tape of a disputed match between teams representing the Romanian army and the state secret police, and the similarly discursive Infinite Football (2018), in which the laws governing the game are called into question.

As demonstrated by these perversely intellectualized sports dramas and by Police, Adjective, Porumboiu enjoys working against genre. The critic Michael Atkinson described The Treasure (2015), a deadpan account of an idiotic get-rich-quick scheme entailing a hunt for the buried booty of pre-Communist Romania, as “the quietest heist movie ever made.” Consequently, there has been something of a critical reaction against Porumboiu’s relatively showy and superficially conventional thriller La Gomera (2019), named for the second smallest of the Canary Islands and released in the United States as The Whistlers.

Heralded by a blast of Iggy Pop’s insouciant anthem “The Passenger,” and nearly three times as expensive as any previous Porumboiu film, The Whistlers suggests an updated, if still scaled-down, version of glitzy mid-1960s international caper films, such as Topkapi (1964) or Charade (1963), complete with Pop art color coordination. Bucharest scenes aside, the locations are exotic—a paradisal Spanish isle off the coast of Africa, with a surprise detour for a rhapsodic light show in Singapore’s Garden by the Bay. The characters are standard-issue noir types, with a rogue cop-cum-patsy called Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) falling hard for a glamorous femme fatale with the archetypal name Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). The register, however, is comic. While some gags, such as those involving a stray filmmaker scouting locations on La Gomera, get laughs, The Whistlers is primarily stocked with low-key jokes that don’t provoke guffaws so much as sustained bemusement.

In its offhand way, the new movie brings back two characters (and their actors) from Police, Adjective. The pedantic provincial inspector Cristi has been relocated to Bucharest and apparently demoted—his tough-minded boss is another femme fatale—while one of the delinquents he arrested in the earlier film (Sabin Tambrea) has grown into the shady businessman whom he becomes entangled with and who lures him to the Canaries. The Whistlers also elaborates on, and perhaps parodies, the earlier film’s linguistic concerns. The most Porumboiuvian element is La Gomera’s indigenous whistling language, which transposes Spanish phonemes into shrill chirrups and warbles that can be heard for miles. Used by the islanders to exchange messages from hilltop to hilltop, it functions for the stoic Cristi and the crooks he serves as a coded alternative to cell phones or email.

The film’s second-most characteristic element is the ubiquity of surveillance. Eavesdroppers monitor other eavesdroppers. Characters deploy spy cams and also playact for them. One elaborate bust takes place on an abandoned movie set that is in fact a trap with hidden police secretly documenting the scene before moving in to decimate the crooks. Given the sense of a global panopticon, The Whistlers feels like it might have been dreamed by someone falling asleep during a screening of Laura Poitras’s 2014 Edward Snowden doc, Citizenfour—which, like Porumboiu’s, is a gadabout movie dealing with mass surveillance and featuring frequent discussion of whistleblowers.

As the viewer ponders the various double (or triple) games that Cristi and Gilda play, the story unfolds in discontinuous sections, somewhat like an origami cube. When two characters rendezvous at a movie theater showing The Searchers, it’s obvious that Porumboiu references the 1956 classic because he can’t resist referencing another genre flick that features a whistling language (in this case, that of the Comanche). The screen within the screen speaks. But why is Jacques Offenbach’s soothing, dreamy “Barcarolle,” often employed to evoke Venice, heard throughout? Could Porumboiu really be alluding to the melody’s use in the 1931 Disney “Silly Symphony” Birds of a Feather (the subject of a lengthy footnote in Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler’s Composing for the Films)? Lapping in our ears throughout Porumboiu’s droll vision of total—and thus naturalized—spycraft, these pensive strains seem an appropriate theme for that vast invisible network in which virtually everyone is a willing participant, packing his or her own personal tracking device. 

J. Hoberman was a Village Voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. His new book is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (The New Press, 2019).