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Review: Hermia & Helena

It dramatizes a vague, free-floating homesickness that seems to apply equally across the ensemble of characters.

Hermia & Helena
Photo: Kino Lorber

Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena offers an implicit rebuke to the received notion that the American debuts of eccentric international filmmakers are bids for accessibility. The film’s narrative concerns the residency of a young, Bueno Aires-based theater director, Camila (Agustina Muñoz), in New York City, where she’s been invited to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish for a new take on Shakespeare’s canonical comedy. And while her adventures feature rekindled romances and a familial reunion, Piñeiro takes considered measures to steer clear of saccharine self-discovery drama. In utilizing a temporally and geographically jumpy structure, a series of detours and doublings that frustrate Camila’s centrality in the story, and a visual surface that delights in non-narrative distractions, he even goes so far as to obfuscate whatever crowd-pleasing qualities may have existed in the material.

None of this is to say, of course, that Hermia & Helena isn’t a gratifying experience. In fact, it may be Piñeiro’s most inspired and thrilling work to date, exhaustive in its means of keeping the viewer off balance and yet rich in its emotional implications. The subject matter is derived at least tangentially from the director’s own recent tenure as a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard and as a Big Apple resident (Camila is twice redirected by an obliging local while walking the wrong way to a destination, which feels like potential self-portraiture on Piñeiro’s part), and this firsthand experience lends an added charge to the film’s inquiries into the nature of belonging, the difficulties of translation (and transition), and the coexistence of past and present.

In the film’s opening moments, lushly saturated images of a blooming garden give way to a close-up of a floral postcard being ignited by a cigarette lighter. The sense of doubt communicated in this juxtaposition about the possibility of even translating reality into a digestible message hangs over Hermia & Helena, which continually finds Camila sidetracked in her grant project by affairs, friendships, and daydreams, thus enabling the film to veer from Piñeiro’s Shakespearean fixation toward matters outside the rehearsal space.

One of these fleeting amusements is Lukas (Keith Poulson), a musician with whom both Camila and her friend, Carmen (María Villar), carried out past relationships; another is Danièle (Mati Diop), the successor to Camila’s position and a quasi-surrogate for Villar’s usual role in Piñeiro’s films, like The Princess of France and Viola, as a sly gossiper with a penchant for impromptu role-playing. Hermia & Helena unfolds as a series of vignettes—divorced from linear chronology, but accompanied by hand-scribbled, helpfully titled chapter headings, such as “Carmen & Camila”—in which the various acquaintances orbiting around Camila shuffle in and out of her life, but never stay long enough for us to get a clear hold on the heroine’s persona.

Instead, the film dramatizes a vague, free-floating homesickness that seems to apply equally across the generous ensemble of characters. Camila’s boyfriend from back home, Leo (Julián Larquier Tellarini), is one such unfulfilled figure, the third wing in a trifecta of men vying for Camila’s affection; a bogus found-footage filmmaker, played by filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa, is another. And Carmen, who held Camila’s role at the unspecified Lower East Side institution prior to her friend’s arrival, resigns to temporary loneliness while back in Buenos Aires, even at one point rephrasing Setsuko Hara’s immortal line “Isn’t life disappointing?” from Tokyo Story (Piñeiro even gives the recently departed actress a dedication right at the start of the film).

Hermia & Helena is replete with formal tics that Piñeiro can claim as his own at this point: a dense verbosity that’s made practically musical by the elegance of the Spanish language (now paired with snatches of secondhand English that are equally fascinating in their imperfections); an astonishingly casual choreography of human bodies that involves a camera planted ever-so-slightly above eye level performing fluid pans and graceful shifts of focus; and a fetishistic attention to printed texts that’s extended here to accommodate one character’s fascination with U.S. tourist postcards.

Given this solidifying directorial language, however, it’s surprising to find that Hermia & Helena’s most pointed aesthetic gesture also happens to be the filmmaker’s newest. Several instances of ostensibly scene-transitioning dissolves transform furtively into long-held superimpositions, with up to four shots overlaid atop one another for up to a minute at a time. One rhyming example of this technique shows two traveling views—one backward-looking shot of a verdant Argentine neighborhood and one forward-facing vantage on the steel beams of the Brooklyn Bridge—that create a dazzling dissonance when combined. The emotional analogue is that of being torn between two locations, two temporalities, or two personas.

This psychological disconnect apexes when Camila embarks on a day trip to the Hudson Valley to visit her estranged biological father, Horace (critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt, in a casting ploy that adds another layer to Piñeiro’s benevolent bridging of concentric cinephilic spheres). Verbal and visual dexterity slow to a calm simmer during a deceptively lighthearted get-to-know-you session in which Camila issues a series of prepared questions to her enigmatic family member, an exchange covered in a rare shot-reverse-shot pattern that isolates each character wholly in their own frame.

The meeting concludes cheerfully enough, but the lasting impression is of a fissure unsewn—of two languages imprecisely translated. Notable through all of this is how distant the film has grown from Camila’s playwriting project and, by extension, Piñeiro’s usual obsession with the echoes between his Shakespearean sources and the dramas that branch off around them. Without ever once seeming to take form from anywhere but Piñeiro’s distinctive sensibility, Hermia & Helena’s creeping melancholy signifies a director hesitantly anchoring off into the unexplored territory beyond the immediate purview of his recurring troupe of thespians.

Cast: Agustina Muñoz, María Villar, Keith Poulson, Mati Diop, Dan Sallitt, Julián Larquier Tellarini, Dustin Guy Defa Director: Matías Piñeiro Screenwriter: Matías Piñeiro Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2016

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