Matías Piñeiro’s films, like Viola and The Princess of France, portray intimate relationships among friends and lovers, at the nexus where art and life intersect. His latest, the jaunty Hermia & Helena, focuses on a theater director, Camila (Augustina Muñoz), who heads to New York for a fellowship at an institute where Carmen (María Villar) just left. Determined to quickly finish a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and return to Buenos Aires, Camila is distracted from her goal by a series of thorny encounters—by chance and otherwise—that should be familiar to fans of Piñeiro’s work.
The Argentinian-born Piñeiro, who’s now based in New York, recently sat down with me to speak about Hermia & Helena, his approach to Shakespeare, the meaning of objects, and his evolving visual vocabulary.
This is your first film set and shot in New York and filmed largely in English. How purposeful was that decision?
It became natural for me to make it this way. I moved to New York in 2011 with no plans to make Hermia & Helena here. I kept making films in Buenos Aires while I was living here. But year after year, I kept meeting people—cinephiles and people who work in the New York film scene—and a friend of mine who worked in distribution said he wanted to produce my film if I wanted to make it in New York and in English. It seemed realistic to try a Shakespeare variation with this new element. It was exciting to change the context. It would be an interesting shift to move the action to a city where I live.
As part of their fellowships, Carmen and Camila are both asked to “leave something intimate” as a gift for the institute. Can you speak to this idea of imposing meaning on objects?
There is this whole world of scholarships and fellowships for artists, writers, and actors. I know all these people who are invited to write scripts in castles in the Netherlands. You are put in a strange situation. Even as a filmmaker, you travel and sleep in hotel rooms that you’d never pay for yourself. There is something there that I wanted to make into a fiction. Traveling like that as a filmmaker made me think: “Where are your feet? What ground are you on?” I made up this idea of leaving an object in an empty room as a present and “giving back.” I like autographic objects in films. It means that someone is leaving or coming, or is lost. The objects in my film, the postcards, the glasses, etcetera, are elements used to define a character or a situation.
What intimate gift would you leave if you were in the characters’ situation?
I don’t know what I would leave. A collage of things I have been collecting all through those months. Tickets, or something from a coffee shop, or a series of things that I have had for the whole year of the fellowship.
You’re very playful as a filmmaker with Danièle’s mysterious postcards, game-playing, and the series of questions Horace and Camila ask one another. How did you work to integrate these narrative devices into the film?
Games usually have rules and structure—one person before the other, and so forth. I include games in my films because games give you a context for the narrative. It puts people in a tension you don’t need to fabricate. They are playing for real. Even the scene of question and answer between Horace and Camila has a tension. They are playing a game and there is an energy there. That is why I include games and use the movement of a game in my films.
I think about my films’ structures, the characters, the actors, and the locations. So I thought of New York and Buenos Aires, then translation, because there are two languages, the fellowship and the idea of traveling, and having the characters come back and forth. It is not chronological but moves back and forth in time. So I developed three sections—telling three short stories. Then, with a prologue and epilogue, I built the film, which was shot before it was fully written. I shot Carmen leaving New York, and had no idea what would happen after, which I came up with later. I had to make it dynamic because we are writing while I am heading to go shoot.
Scattered throughout the film are mirror images, negative images, double exposures, text on screen, and more visual gimmicks, like bird’s-eye views. Can you speak to the visual approach you took to the film?
I like alternative ways of telling a story. We can work in an artificial way to tell our story. I like that narrative films can have experimental detours. Nothing is too established. I like the idea of language existing between two images—living in the middle of that state. The first idea was thinking about translation. I approach Shakespeare by reading it, not seeing it or acting in a theater. I like reading it. I’m not an actor. I have very little experience in theater. So my relationship is with the text, and I wanted to include that. I thought of how text can be included in an image. It can be unnatural. But I have to translate the subtitles for my own films so I already have text in my images. So let us embrace that and take it to another level and put the words in the screen. It was a challenge that excited me. My other films are closer to theater, like the production in Viola, or the radio play in The Princess of France. There are layers in my films and I like the idea of superimposition. Here are two countries, two languages, and things get mixed up. There is never a pure translation; you are dealing with the impurity of language. It is very dirty work.
Your characters talk about change, mostly about how they don’t want to change. Carmen returns to Buenos Aires and to where she was when she left. She even explains how she and her boyfriend froze their relationship so they could pick up where they left off. What can you say about this theme?
It is unavoidable, and that is the melancholic part of the film. We are always in a state of transformation. Like translation, there is a better way to be. It is not going to be perfect. They will keep moving and change until they die. It is movement more than perfection. I like characters who try to go against change or try to move against it. I can think something today, but tomorrow it can be different. I embrace change and volatility and being closer to the present moment, rather than looking back and trying to conserve the past.
Speaking of change, another motif in your work is the repetition and fragmentation. There’s less of that in Hermia & Helena than in your previous work. Do you see yourself moving away from your established style?
I think it evolves. There are other ways of repeating. In Viola, it was the loop that never ends. In The Princess of France, a whole scene is repeated, breaking reality. Here I have the idea of going back and forth, which is similar but not exactly repetition. It is different every time. I use the same actresses, camera, and crew. I work every three years. So I try to focus on the elements that challenge me. If I did it already, why repeat it? That is not a reason to make the opposite, but it is interesting to see something that is just a little different. It would be boring for me to repeat.
To me the major themes of the film are communication—it’s in all the postcards, Skype sessions, phone calls, meetings—and miscommunication, as when Camila and Horace are at cross purposes.
It is about expectations and how they can be broken. You are waiting for something and it does not happen. It has to do with not being aware of your present, or losing communication, or you are inflexible. It relates to change. Miscommunication can happen as things change. Also, communication produces conflict. Miscommunication produces resistance to change, when you are not in the present and not listening to what someone is saying. That is interesting in terms of storytelling. For example, with the postcards, Camila, who is bored in New York, becomes distracted by the first mystery she finds, or with Gregg—and they decide to not communicate anymore.