NYFF: “The Whistlers” Never Rises Above a Whisper

Romania’s Corneliu Porumbiou bogs down excellent production design in droopy, exposition-heavy noir trappings.

The Whistlers is almost a heist movie. The latest from Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumbiou, this pulpy, stylish noir tracks Bucharest detective Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), as he travels to the Spanish island of La Gomera. He’s there to learn “whistled language,” a real, rare form of communication that uses whistling sounds to emulate speech and confer over long distances.

 Extended sequences of Cristi’s whistling-education are an early warning that Porumbiou is more interested in craft and procedure than the non-linear narrative, and the film is structured around equivalent priorities. While we do eventually learn the whats and whys of Cristi’s new linguistic endeavor, the exposition is far less engaging than the striking, nifty set and scene design.

The Whistlers

The Whistlers is broken up into chapters, each announced with a splashy, colored title card containing a character’s name. From there, the mise-en-scene is tailored around said character – for example, the opening section belongs to femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), who owns the color red – every scene in her piece composed with crimson in mind. 

Cristi is still the protagonist, but Porumbiou has conjured a genuinely unique way to introduce and juggle his ensemble of gangsters and crooked cops. His choices are reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s color work in Baby Driver, or maybe even M. Night Shyamalan’s character-composed cinematography in Glass.

The problem is that while Porumbiou’s style successfully conveys the vibes of these characters, these people never come across as anything more than noir-archetypes. That’s not necessarily a problem, but here, you get the sense that the filmmakers are more interested in craft for its own sake than whether or not said craft is particularly entertaining. It’s not quite style over substance – because there’s so much substance in the style – but you can’t help but feel there’s something missing.

But there’s enough good here to keep The Whistlers going for all 97-minutes. The whistling language itself is genuinely fascinating, and the claustrophobic sense of paranoia that hangs throughout conveys the stakes even when the plot does not. The performances, while generally reserved, are pretty good across the board. But instead of trying to get in any of these people’s heads, every act is explicated and unpacked (it should come as no shock that the act of filmmaking itself is also untangled during two entertaining, if unnecessary, detours).

It’s not quite style over substance – because there’s so much substance in the style – but you can’t help but feel there’s something missing.

One can’t help but imagine the movie The Whistlers could’ve been, had Porumbiou attempted to entertain his audience a bit more, or abandoned the noir trappings aspects entirely. I’m not sure I’m interested in the latter, while the former calls to mind one of Stanley Kubrick’s earlier works, The Killing. It’ll be interesting to see in which direction Porumbiou’s eye glances next. Regardless, you could do far worse than The Whistlers – simultaneously, The Whistlers could’ve been far more compelling.

The Whistlers Trailer:

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