Saturday night marks the first time that Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu will climb the steps of Cannes’ Grand Théâtre Lumière to premiere a film in competition. But for a director who’s called himself a “child” of the world’s glitziest film festival, the butterflies are familiar.
“Every time I’m coming to Cannes, I have this type of emotions,” he said. “This time, I think that they’re a little bit more.”
Porumboiu arrives this year with his latest feature, “The Whistlers,” a noir-inspired movie about a Bucharest police inspector who gets entangled in a high-stakes heist that takes him to the Spanish island of La Gomera. The film stars Romanian leading man Vlad Ivanov, whose recent credits include Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes player “Graduation” and Laszlo Nemes’ “Sunset.”
Porumboiu’s inaugural visit to the Croisette came in 2004, when his short film “A Trip to the City” won the Cinéfondation second prize. It was a pivotal moment for a young director, who wasn’t entirely sure where his career path might take him. “I didn’t know if I could do cinema, or how long,” he said. “For me, that selection was very important.”
If it was an auspicious start for Porumboiu, then what followed was a sure sign of great things to come. His feature debut, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature after premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight in 2006; three years later, “Police, Adjective” earned him the grand jury prize in Un Certain Regard.
Over the span of a celebrated career that’s made him one of the leading figures of the Romanian New Wave, Porumboiu has been as much a Cannes fixture as red carpets and rosé. Yet with each new accolade, he’s braced himself for the next challenge. “For a director, the only film that counts is the last one,” he said.
“The Whistlers” marks a certain kind of departure for Porumboiu, who called it “the biggest film that I’ve made.” Globe-trotting from Romania to the Canary Islands to Singapore, it broadens the canvas of a director whose droll, dry brand of satire has typically found him bearing down with microscopic precision on the smallest details of Romanian life.
Yet “The Whistlers” also deepens Porumboiu’s life-long fascination with language, probing its limitations, as well as its function as an instrument of power. In “12:08 East of Bucharest,” his provincial cast of characters’ discussion about the legacy of the Romanian revolution hinges on an absurdly technical debate over precisely when townspeople joined nationwide protests. “Police, Adjective” is a slow-paced procedural that explores how the deliberate parsing of definitions can ultimately turn language against itself.
“The Whistlers” takes its inspiration from an archaic whistling language used on the island of La Gomera. “In the beginning, I was attracted by the strangeness of this language, and at the same time, a certain type of poetry,” Porumboiu said. The plot turns on whether that wordless dialect can help the protagonists pull off a remarkable heist, but the caper is only the beginning for Porumboiu. “From that point,” he said, “[the film] will arrive in another place.”