At least four of the longest and most pivotal shots of Matías Piñeiro’s latest film, The Princess of France, follow the same basic trajectory. His camera, as it is keen to do, starts fixed on the face and hair of a woman, invariably poised and incandescent. It pans slowly, in one direction, and rests on a new object of interest: a group of children on an urban soccer pitch; a man arriving late to a play; or later, that same man, who proves to be the force the film’s handful of prospective lovers swirl around. After a few seconds or minutes, the camera returns to its original position. By this point, some decisive, but hazily definable, shift in the film’s emotional geometry has occurred: some of the children playing soccer have swapped teams and alliances; the seat mate who seems to be a stranger is either a womanizing creep or a hungry lover; or that bohemian, who we come to know as Victor (Julián Larquier Tallarini), has returned or ignored a pregnant gaze.
Victor is the ostensible focus of The Princess of France, Piñeiro’s third and most intricately layered riff on a Shakespeare romance. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, a king and three lords fail to swear off women for three years in order to further their resolve and intellect. In the film, Victor returns to Buenos Aires from a year in Mexico in order to begin a radio production of the play with his cohort of artists and students. He arrives home early in order to surprise his girlfriend, but she’s nowhere to be found, so Victor wanders among his cast of actresses, intent on seeming to be a new man. Romantic aspersions are quickly cast in any manner of directions. Victor falls for the pregnant Ana (María Villar, with the extraordinary guilelessness of a young Laura Dern) as she gives a studied oration on the life and art of 19th-century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau in a museum. After a night together, she rebuffs him in a note written on a postcard from the museum. It’s stuffed into a copy of the play, and travels around the film through Victor’s subsequent encounters. The postcard is, for Piñeiro, a thrillingly multivalent symbol: a singular sentiment expressed on a cheap memento; a work of art and an object of commerce; an act of gamesmanship and a MacGuffin.
A bit of an emotional cipher, Victor doesn’t seem to know what to make of it. In Piñeiro’s films, the men are passive and the women are indomitable, but all are captive to more cosmic contingencies. In one sequence, an actress uses a friend’s phone in an attempt to meet up with Victor. She wants a part in his production, and to slip him a letter that will further the film’s romantic tangles. Her first attempt fails, so the scene starts again, and then again: The dialogue and setting remain, but her friend and the actors’ intonations change until she gets what she wants. The distinctiveness of Piñeiro’s alluring brand of formalism lies in this deference to chance and alchemy. He and cinematographer Fernando Lockett are constantly framing shots to suggest the possibility of mutual attraction or betrayal, but figures and voices just outside the screen tend to leave matters more complicated.
Not to mention confusing. Like Viola, Piñeiro’s breakout pastiche of Twelfth Night, The Princess of France delights in sowing epistemological uncertainty. Identities and impulses are fluid and uncertain. We learn the names of characters before we figure out which faces to attach them to. Recalling or sussing out the details of their relation to Victor is hard, maybe futile work; so is simultaneously assimilating the film’s Shakespearean dialogue, and puzzling out how and whether it relates to the visuals at hand. Each moment of The Princess of France is dense with information that demands to be mediated, but Pineiro’s calm touch encourages the viewer to enjoy feeling adrift. While his structural conceits and byzantine plots are hard to pin down, his thematic concerns are always prevalent and full of playful ideas. In one scene, an actress helps Victor record sound effects for his radio show, and her manufactured gust of wind is used later on to soundtrack a climactic, stunningly choreographed scene of Victor’s final encounter with each of his prospective interests. These romantic pursuits are as rehearsed, blocked, and produced as the plays his characters put on, but their success is always tenuous, a matter of conviction and circumstance. Both love and art are acts of leisure that Piñeiro’s characters are hopelessly, infectiously in thrall to.