Based in Buenos Aires and New York City (both locations feature here), Matías Piñeiro has scaled a couple of rungs up the international film festival ladder with his series of independent features inspired by Shakespeare’s comedies, first Viola (2012) and then The Princess of France (2014). (There were two earlier features, The Stolen Man and They All Lie, 2007 and 2009 respectively, and then the mid-length short Rosalind in 2011.) He hasn’t cracked Cannes yet but he’s practically guaranteed a slot at Locarno, where his latest film premiered in August, prior to screenings at TIFF, New York, Vancouver and London. (The Princess of France also received a limited theatrical release in the US through fledgling cinephilic distributor Grasshopper Film.)
Director Matías Piñeiro
Hermia & Helena deserves to expand on that trajectory, though its charms are still tightly wound up in Piñeiro’s characteristic virtues of modesty and simplicity. Like Piñeiro himself, his heroine Camila (played by his regular actress Agustina Muñoz) comes to NYC on an artist fellowship, where she means to work on a new Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As cleverly interspersed flashbacks to her departure from Buenos Aires show, she has a boyfriend at home, though the relationship is not so deeply established that it’s automatically going to outlive a year-long separation. Indeed, Camila also has unfinished business with an ex still living in New York. Then there’s an encounter with a former fellow (played by filmmaker and actress Mati Diop), and a dalliance with the attractive grad whose job is to look after visiting artists and scholars. Yet for all these sundry romantic adventures (most of them implied – it’s quite a chaste film), Camila’s most intense rendezvous is with her American father Horace (nicely underplayed by critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt).
Clearly, this is not so much an interpretation of the bard as an invocation. Allusions are poetic and playful rather than literal, though Camila’s job does extend an opportunity for intertextuality, and to hear a few passages in both English and Spanish. The Dream is just a peg on which to hang another of Piñeiro’s gentle ruminations on fickle affections, bohemian life, art and experience. There’s an affinity here with navel-gazing North American independents, but few of his US counterparts can match the elegant, fluid camerawork of DP Fernando Locket or Piñeiro’s subtle revelation of gradations of feeling – comparisons with the apparently hermetic but acutely curious and emotionally refined cinema of Hong Sang-soo and Eric Rohmer are more appropriate.
Hermia & Helena is not a perfect film: the various temporal and geographical (and, of course, sexual) dualities make for a more vertiginous parlour trick than usual, and occasionally Piñeiro drops the ball. There’s probably one digression too many to keep the momentum going, the tricky chronology arguably gets in the way sometimes, and through over-familiarity the jaunty, initially ingratiating Scott Joplin score carries unwelcome hints of Woody Allen hand-me-downs. But with each film Piñeiro is growing more expansive and confident; and especially in the beautifully modulated sequence when Camila visits her absentee dad, the movie attains a richness and maturity that lingers in the mind. A dedication, not to Shakespeare, but to Ozu star Setsuko Hara, comes full circle in the melancholy anti-climax.