Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Universal Language’ is a Hidden Gem With a Big Heart


Directors: Matthew Rankin
Writers: Ila Firouzabadi, Pirouz Nemati, Matthew Rankin
Stars: Matthew Rankin, Mani Soleymanlou, Danielle Fichaud

Synopsis: Two women find frozen cash, try to retrieve it. A tour guide leads confused tourists around Winnipeg sites. A man quits his job, visits his mother. Storylines intertwine surreally as identities blur in a disorienting comedy


One of the most intriguing aspects of the Quinzaine de Cineastes’ lineup is the discovery of talented filmmakers who could be the directors of tomorrow. This unique side section of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival often goes unnoticed, as the spotlight is understandably on the films competing for the Palme d’Or. However, having covered this section for the past couple of years, I can attest to the wealth of surprises it holds. This year, Matthew Rankin’s latest work, Universal Language (Une Langue universelle), is a shining example.  It is a deadpan, structurally weird, and heartful piece that beautifully explores the theme of connection.

Rankin tells a tale that ties three cities together. He captures the longing for belonging and solidarity via a poetic Matryoshka doll concoction that doesn’t make sense at first but slowly blossoms into a thing of beauty. Introduced to us with a VHS tape educational video presentation meant for the youth of Winnipeg and done “in the name of friendship,” Universal Language begins with a scene in a classroom. Rowdy children are awaiting their teacher, who is running late after his bus broke down and had to walk through the snow to get there. He’s mad at them because of their bad behavior – disappointed that they misbehaved in his absence. The teacher later starts mocking their answers when he asks them what they want to be when they grow up.

The teacher picks on Omid (Sobhan Javadi) the most, a young kid behind in his studies due to his myopia; the youngling lost his glasses when a runaway turkey attacked him on his way home. Of course, nobody believes him, especially his teacher. So, he then decides that there will be no more education until Omid can see properly. In this scene, Rankin begins the pattern of intertwining stories and presenting hints at the sadness behind the comedic elements. You immediately point out that the teacher’s rant isn’t just about his string of bad luck that day; there’s more than meets the eye. These emotions are carried over from another incident.

The film then switches scenery, and we follow two of Omid’s classmates, Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi), who find an Iranian banknote worth five hundred riels stuck on the frozen floor. Instead of thinking about themselves, the two want to help poor Omid by buying him a new pair of glasses. The two friends take off into a small venture to try and take that money out of the ice by any means possible. They seek help from strangers, ask vendors to borrow ice picks and axes, as well as get sent from one place to another to do quick favors like mini sidequests in a videogame. At the same time, two other concurrent stories take place.

A tour guide leads a group of people through Winnipeg’s monuments and historic sites. There are a couple of important spots to look at, but the city itself doesn’t seem that interesting. Not even the tour guide seems to sell the monuments as grand. The other story centers around a man named Matthew (played by the director himself, Matthew Rankin), who has quit his job in Quebec and now travels to Winnipeg to visit his ailing mother. These stories might seem very different from one another, as they have different tones and pacings. But in how Rankin intertwines them, they come together in quite surprising ways. Everyone is connected. Every single character is tied to one another, even in the slightest details imaginable.

At first, it is hard to truly get into the movie due to the viewer’s uncertainty about where these stories will intersect narratively and thematically. We go from the past to the present and vice-versa; time splits as the stories shift. But when you notice how beautiful and captivating the webbing is, everything is seen and perceived in a new light. Rankin purposefully entangles the narrative for two-thirds of the film to reveal his film’s proper form later. The viewer patiently waits as the two kids, the angry teacher, the man visiting his mother, and even the runaway turkey with Omid’s glasses are tied together. And it is all so fascinating to watch.

Stylistically, Matthew Rankin takes inspiration from some filmmakers who use deadpan comedy in brilliant ways, giving their respective works personality and uniqueness. The works of Roy Andersson and Wes Anderson inspire Universal Language. Rankin uses the former’s blend of “laughing through the pain” existentialism and melancholia, as well as the muted colors in the background and locations. Meanwhile, you can see the centric shot compositions and vivacity from the performances of the latter demonstrated. Because of these two influences, Rankin gives his film multiple emotional layers that sneak into the viewer’s soul as everything comes together.

Everything is odd and cluttered initially, yet it still intrigues you with how it develops. Matthew Rankin mentions in the press notes—where he hilariously interviews himself—that one line from The Color of Pomegranates was crucial for this film’s creation. “We were looking for ourselves in each other”. In relation to the Universal Language, Rankin reflects on how each of these characters on-screen has deep humility and compassion for them all by the end of the film. They acknowledge that they have, in some way, shape, or form, done the same actions and went through similar situations. So, a feeling of understanding is created in the process.

Somehow, that is the universal language that unites us all, holding us on tenterhooks and tranquility. Everyone goes through hardships that make each day feel like a living hell. Yet, compassion can be transmitted through that understanding via dialogue or even a quick glance. That is the beauty that emerges from the ending of Universal Language. Matthew Rankin creates a deadpan comedy that has many layers once the stories begin to meet. It is a true demonstration of the talent that lurks in the Quinzaine des Cineastes; the film is a little hidden gem that holds a big, delicate heart.

Grade: B

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