‘Universal Language’ Review: Matthew Rankin’s Wonderfully Absurdist Vision Is Mirthful and Melancholic

There is a good chance that “Universal Language,” the latest feature from writer, director and actor Matthew Rankin, will earn some well-intentioned if superficial comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson. The sharp playfulness of the tone, set in a pointedly surreal version of the Canadian cities of Winnipeg and Montreal where Fasrsi is now the dominant language, as well as the dynamic visual style certainly deserve to be held in such high esteem.

However, to just reduce the film to such an easy point of comparison is to miss out on the full beautiful picture that is being given vibrant life here by Rankin alongside his co-writers Pirouz Nemati and Ila Firouzabadi. While Anderson admirers may be well-positioned to enjoy “Universal Language,” they will also find there is plenty that is joyously distinct. It’s a film whose magnificence sneaks up on you, delighting in plenty of clever silliness before hitting you with a succession of somber scenes that lay you flat.

Premiering Saturday in the Director’s Fortnight section at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, the film opens with a perfectly framed exterior shot of a school where a group of students play in a classroom as their teacher (Mani Soleymanlou) is running late. This is merely the first sign of how expertly well-shot the entire film is by cinematographer Isabelle Stachtchenko. When the teacher arrives, he is angry that he’s late and starts laying into all of the kids who have now fallen into silence, asking them about what dreams they have for themselves before dismissing them one by one. It’s a stellar opening as it’s both uproariously funny and sets the stage for what’s to come. Dreams, in this world and our own, are elusive things that easily can slip through our fingers.

In the midst of this opening, we get to know some of these students, such as Omid (Sobhan Javadi) whose glasses were stolen by one of many turkeys that populate the film. Following a great gag involving a swing set, the main duo of kids that we will follow are Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and her sister Nazgûl (Saba Vahedyousefi) who discover a rial note that has been frozen in the ice. They set out to try to free it to buy a new pair of glasses for poor Omid, but this is easier said than done.

Elsewhere, Rankin plays a worker who is leaving his job in the city to return home after what seems like quite a long time away. Following a hilarious exit interview where he’s told only to say he had an OK time working there, he sets off to take a bus which quickly breaks down, and he’ll then spend most of the time trudging through the snow in the hopes of finding home.

The film then becomes a strange odyssey, with recurring commercials about turkeys or visits to the Kleenex store. Many of these scenes make one think of Jacques Tati’s 1967 intricate masterwork “PlayTime,” but that comparison is just one part of the experience. While it drops us into an often desolate and cold landscape, there is a warmth at the center of Rankin’s film. Like the ice that the youths hope to chip away at to free the money from its cold confines, it’s a film that finds plenty of riches the longer that you sit with it.

In Rankin’s eye, Iranian culture and the people themselves are part of the fabric of Canada. To Rankin, it’s the little moments that are worth stopping to slow down for.

While the film is overflowing with plenty of sly and sentimental musings, it’s in the latter half where it finds its most resonant moments. Without leaving the humor behind completely, Rankin starts to increasingly operate in a different tonal and emotional register. The first time his character returns to his childhood home, we are treated to a dialogue-free scene where we witness the joy of a new family that now lives there. When he arrives there, he is welcomed with open arms, making for a surprisingly emotional and moving sequence. Even as the precise way the film is constructed could be cold for the purpose of comedy, it’s in scenes like these where we start to feel a more fervent passion bursting out.

In particular, the final series of scenes brings these all out into the open in stunning fashion. It’s punctuated by the film’s most surreal flourish, but it all feels completely in keeping with what Rankin was gently pushing us towards over the entire journey. Rankin finds final moments of awe and beauty in the smallest of places.

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