Credit: Quinzaine des cinéastes
by Caleb Hammond Featured Film

Universal Language — Matthew Rankin [Cannes’ 24 Review]

May 30, 2024

Universal Language opens on a static wide shot outside a French language school in snowy Winnipeg. We see the teacher grumpily trudge in late. Once inside, he proceeds to take out his anger on the young Persian students, telling them candidly they won’t ever amount to anything. This scene directly recalls Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House?, but also draws to mind the more recent, similarly snowbound About Dry Grasses, in which teacher Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) angrily tells his students they’ll never be anything but sheep farmers. This opening establishes the film’s playful tone, in which the students are less harmed by the rant and more puzzled and perhaps even concerned for the mental state of their kooky teacher. It also slyly sets up several threads that will intersect throughout the rest of the film, including one involving a glasses-stealing prized turkey.

Universal Language is a playful amalgamation of director Matthew Rankin’s diverse preoccupations with his home town of Winnipeg and classic Iranian cinema. If you aren’t familiar with the Iranian cinema references packed into this one — the two major touchstones being Children of Heaven and The White Balloon— it’s no matter, as one can still thoroughly appreciate the film’s absurdist humor, provided a willingness to meet the film on its unique wavelength. Rankin’s command of tone and frame (lensed beautifully in 16mm by DP Isabelle Stachtchenko) ensure it’s a cinch to tap into the surreal world he’s concocted — a world in which everyone in this sleepy Canadian town speaks Farsi and even the local Tim Horton’s is a classy establishment that serves Persian donuts and tea. 

One central narrative thread stems directly from a story Rankin’s grandmother told him about how as kids during the Depression they discovered a bank note frozen in water and concocted complex plans to extract it. This sparked Rankin’s imagination and reminded him of the Iranian cinema from the ‘70s he loved, in which children are faced with adult-sized dilemmas. That thread intersects with another here in which a character named “Matthew Rankin” (played by the director) returns home after working a soulless job in Quebec. Coming home and rediscovering its charm is essentially its own genre, and Rankin manages to further make it his own here, avoiding the overly-nostalgic trappings that often befall such a typically Sundance-esque narrative. For instance, Rankin, the character, finds his place at home fully taken over by a stranger. This stranger is a local tour guide who takes groups around a strange collection of dull Winnipeg landmarks, including a briefcase left at a bus stop years earlier, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage landmark. There’s a purity of human spirit throughout the film, evidenced by the key detail that no one has ever peered into the contents of said briefcase. A respect for one’s fellow man lingers, even when on hard times. It makes a specific betrayal toward the end of the film, regarding that frozen bank note, ring even more painfully for the two children at the center of it. 

Outside of the Iranian touchstones of Kiarostami and Panahi, Universal Language also recalls the controlled frames of Wes Anderson, Roy Andersson, and the stilted conversations and well-composed wides of Aki Kaurismäki. Universal Language is not some empty compendium of film references for cinephiles in the know, however — it possesses a real heart and lingering melancholy. It’s in this that the film hews closest to Anderson perhaps, in that both filmmakers possess a true understanding for how framing, score, and even line readings work together to elicit outwardly inexplicable emotional responses in audiences. 

Foreign cinema is at its best when it achieves two things: First, when it shows, as Rankin has pointed out, that the “there” is “here.” This is the universal language the title refers to, in which humans are humans everywhere, with similar desires, hang-ups, etc. But foreign cinema must also demonstrate something distinct about how specific cultures raise up these humans differently. Regional specificity, even within countries, can’t ever be lost. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the casualness with which the characters accept the presence of a spirit at their dinner table is a wholly un-American read on the situation, for instance. In Universal Language, a Tim Horton’s sign written in Farsi understands the mash-up as deeply surreal and an image only cinema can dream up. In Rankin’s youth, he traveled to Tehran to study film there, and he says cryptically this attempt was a “failure.” But like all good failures, he met lots of great people and returned to Canada inspired. On that trip he was struck by Winnipeg and Tehran’s shared brutalist architecture, and so Universal Language highlights these buildings, their grey and beige concrete jutting with real beauty against the winter sky. In this way, Universal Language frequently discovers a beauty in blandness, a whimsy in the everyday, and is a remarkable second feature from Rankin.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4.