Like so many other filmmakers from around the world, the Buenos Aires born writer/director Matías Piñeiro has found himself straddling borders with his latest entry into his reliably fast, loose and fantastic Shakespereads series, Hermia & Helena, following Rosalinda, Viola, and The Princess of France. Half set in the heart of NYC, where theatre director Camila (Piñeiro staple Agustina Muñoz) has taken a fellowship to work on a Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the other anchored back in Argentina where, both before and after departure, pros and cons of fellowship abroad are debated among friends and family. With help from Scott Joplin’s melancholy ragtime score, Fernando Lockett’s intimately searching cinematography and another star making performance by Muñoz, Piñeiro’s formally playful narrative weaves itself in and out of sync with the Bard, while going deeper emotionally than he’s ever gone before.
Revealing its personal ties upfront, Hermia & Helena echoes its director’s own relocation to NYC to partake in a fellowship with the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard in order to research and write a new film titled Sarmiento, Translator back in 2011. How close he comes to his flighty, flirty and searching protagonist is debatable, but it’s clear they’re shared interest in Shakespeare and his explicit ruminations on the difficulty of navigating love in all forms is forthright. In addition to the translation project she’s taken on, Camila’s abrupt exit from Buenos Aires was both an escape from a budding serious relationship and an opportunity to track down a former lover. But what she doesn’t anticipate is a romantic fling with a musical former fellow (Alex Ross Perry regular Keith Poulson), the reception of a series of postcards sent from the American midwest sent from a former fellow (actor and director Mati Diop in a brief, intense cameo), or the opportunity to meet her former folk rocking father whom she’s never known (played with stunning warmth and laid back solemnity by fellow filmmaker Dan Sallitt), each granting greater dimension to a deeply engaging lead.
Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself, Piñeiro employs dream logic as a portal to formal exploration. He lays notated sections of Camila’s notes on screen along with whispered dialogue from the text as she drifts in and out of consciousness, riffing on expressive prose in an attempt to expand our own unconscious conception of the events unfolding on screen. Similarly, we’re frequently transported through time and space by slowly overlapping transitional fades that render iron bridges and budding greenery beautiful phantasmagoric abstractions. He even manages to conjure Agnès Varda’s groundbreaking Cleo From 5 to 7, integrating a brief snowbound film within his own that punctuates the intellectual disconnection that lies between Camila and her American filmmaking lover, adding another helping of forlorn humor to the mix. But most surprisingly, despite all the formal playfulness, what remains most impressive is Hermia & Helena’s reserve of emotional depth.
At its playful little core, Piñeiro’s film ponders the prospects of mislaid love via lost and unexpected new connections. Camila’s romantic whimsy and casual curiosity about the past ultimately leads to an unearthing of deep seeded, unexpected emotion within Hermia & Helena, signaling a new level of artistic maturity for Piñeiro and his regular collaborators. There are few filmmakers working today as reliably unpredictable, exciting, and above all, thoughtfully lighthearted in his formal playfulness. Matías, please, keep ‘em comin’.
Reviewed on September 12th at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – Wavelengths Programme. 86 Minutes