Cannes Film Festival 2024: Day 5: Saturday, 18 May: Universal Language (2024) (Une Langue Universelle)

Universal Language directed by Matthew Rankin is a surreal satire on provincial Canada.

Winnipeg Tehran

by Alexa Dalby

Universal Language

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Well, it’s clear that director Matthew Rankin is an associate of Guy Maddin. Universal Language has that same feeling of surreal unreality in looks and speech.

Director Rankin, who plays Matthew, a bemused civil servant, like Maddin also comes from Winnipeg. And it’s very boring there as well as very cold: also very flat and beige. Somehow several Canadian cities are merged.

Universal Language creates the same feeling of dislocation and disorientation that asylum seekers must feel in a new country. It’s Canada, but not as we know it. The buildings are familiar but everyone speaks Farsi. The signs on the buildings are in Farsi too: Canada seems as strange as a foreign country.

Several surreal narrative strands intertwine. Overall, there’s the biting cold and the deep snow. Matthew leaves a boring government job in a grotesque office in Montreal to return to his mother in Winnipeg. Bilingual Mani Soleymanlou plays an exasperated immersive-French teacher for Farsi-speaking children, two of whom (Rojina Esmaeili and Saba Vahedyousefi) find a 500-rial note frozen into a block of ice and this takes them on a wild goose chase to borrow an axe from an adult to dig it out so that can buy a new pair of glasses for their classmate Omid (Sobhan Javadi), who had his stolen by a turkey in an improbable incident. (The use of children is reminiscent of Iranian cinema of the ’90s). Massoud (Pirouz Nemati) is a tour guide around the boring and banal sights (Winnipeg seems to be a bit short on culture) – there are few tourists, and those there are are confused. He may have appropriated Matthew’s mother in his absence. A lacrimologist reappears who collects tears. And turkeys on the loose feature heavily, as does a turkey shop with an absent proprietor.

Universal Language is weird: it’s an absurd, surreal satire on sensible but boring Canada, shot like an Iranian film. It is also about the adjustment of asylum seekers to a new country and the difficulties of having two new languages to learn (French as well as English) and try to express yourself in. Everyone in the film speaks languages from different parts of the world but they connect with each other because they speak in the universal language of humanity.

Universal Language premiered at Cannes in the Quinzaine des Cinéastes on 18 May 2024 and screens again on 19 May. International sales are by Best Friend Forever and representation is by The PR Factory.

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