With all due respect to Lauren Bacall, there’s always been a bit more to whistling than putting your lips together and blowing. Certainly for Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the corrupt Bucharest policeman embroiled in a comically complex plot to get a local gangster off the hook in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Cannes competition title “The Whistlers,” it is a matter of life and death. It requires practise, training and a bent forefinger, angled between pursed lips, like it’s holding a gun and the bullet will exit the opposite ear.
Cristi has been sent to the island of La Gomera in The Canaries, where he is to learn the ancient whistling language originally, well, whistled by the Guanches, an aboriginal tribe native to the region. This is because, by the slightly lunatic logic of Porumboiu’s screenplay, in these days of easily hackable cellphones and widespread surveillance, whistling has the advantage of not even sounding like conversation. “The police will hear it and think the birds are singing!” says one of his accomplices.
As whimsical as this is, so far it’s not outside the established realms of Porumboiu’s eclectic, quicksilver curiosity. On paper, Cristi could simply be another of the director’s hangdog everymen, pursuing a quixotic, unrealistic and probably unnecessarily involved pipe dream that he believes will somehow make his life all better. That makes him a kindred spirit to the mid-level local functionary plotting the complete international overhaul of soccer in 2018’s wonderful “Infinite Football,” or the debt-ridden dad convinced there’s a fortune buried in a suburban garden in 2015’s “The Treasure.”
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But “The Whistlers” is a departure, literally as well as figuratively, in that much of it is set outside Porumboiu’s native Romania, and the plot marches to the beat of the gangster noir, a genre that feels a little schematic and stifling for a director normally so beautifully uncategorizable. Cristi, who knows that his days playing both sides are numbered and that his frosty, gimlet-eyed boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) has installed spy cameras all over his apartment, is seduced into the scheme by the aptly named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), as slinky a femme fatale as ever slinked. And soon he is mired in the treacherous middle ground between the criminal crew of Gilda, her boyfriend Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) and the big boss Paco (Agustí Villaronga), and his life in Romania, involving the also-corrupt Magda, his mother (Julieta Szonyi) and two mattresses stuffed to springiness with 100-euro bills.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in the simple eccentricity of the premise, which is pulled back from silliness by the cast’s underplaying and Porumboiu’s natural inclination to tamp proceedings back into drollery. That’s to say nothing of his regular d.p. Tudor Mircea’s camerawork, which is finessed, but still unshowy and naturalistic. By contrast, as is his wont, Porumboiu goes large with the soundtrack, smashing into and out of scenes on abrupt, bombastic tracks, which often mimic the whistling motif in the vibrato of an opera singer’s voice, or the exaggeratedly rolled ‘r’s and hissed ‘s’-es of Ute Lemper’s “Mack the Knife,” sung in the original German.
The director has long been established as the most skewedly humorous of the Romanian New Wave brigade, but that mischief-maker reputation does not mean his films have lacked substance. If anything, his style of disingenuously deadpan wit has given us some of the most lacerating commentary of the whole movement, cutting deeper because the critique is hidden under a smile — or more likely, a slow, owlish blink. “The Whistlers” has themes that are recurring, itchy areas of interest for Porumboiu: The preoccupation with language, as a means to reveal but also conceal, is the central concern of “Police, Adjective” and the negotiation of self-interest versus professional ethics, of codes of honor and codes of duty, seems to be an ongoing project.
So why does “The Whistlers” feel comparatively minor? Partly, there’s not enough whistling: As a screwy plot device with so much potential, it feels curiously under-exploited here. But mostly, it’s that Porumboiu’s cinema is about subtle, sly surprises that steal up on you while you think you’re watching something else. Moments of transcendent grace occur, sometimes in the very last frames, and always in the least encouraging of environments: bureaucratic offices, police stations, living-room sofas, dismal playgrounds. But within a neo-noir crime caper the archetypes are so deeply embedded, and the dimensions of the characters so familiar, that there is not a lot of room to pull one of those quietly dazzling switcheroos. Gilda, for example, can’t quite escape the thinness of the traditional femme fatale role, and it’s galling to see her treated as, essentially, the trophy that Cristi may or may not earn through his actions.
That’s also partly down to Cristi’s characterization. As outwardly stolid as Porumboiu’s protagonists can be, there tends to be something deeply lovable about them, a tiny flame of romantic idealism that burns lustily no matter how the world has tried to snuff it out. Cristi, corrupt from the outset and so taciturn it’s difficult to invest in his redemption arc, does fall for Gilda, but it doesn’t feel like a deep human connection as much as an inevitability, given her beauty and need for rescue, and his apparent loneliness. (According to their priest, his mother “worries” that he might be gay.) As a low-key romp with a twisty, globetrotting plot “The Whistlers” is an enjoyable affair with just enough of a slant to feel a little offbeat. But Porumboiu aficionados chasing the same weird high he has delivered time and again before — wherein a single moment can transform a ridiculous scheme into a fairy tale, or a silly notion into a grand philosophical quest — are just going to have to whistle for it.