'Hermia & Helena': Locarno Review

Locarno Festival Hermia And Helena Publicity Still H 2016
Festival del film Locarno
A Midsummer bummer until Dad shows up.

The latest film from Argentinean director Matias Pineiro ('The Princess of France,' 'Viola') is another contemporary riff on a Shakespeare comedy.

Hermia & Helena is Argentinean filmmaker Matias Pineiro’s fourth contemporary riff on female heroines from Shakespeare's comedies after the 60-odd-minute features Viola and The Princess of France and the medium-length Rosalinda. For the first time, the result is almost an hour and a half long and was partially shot in the state and city of New York, rather than exclusively in Argentina.

But shooting abroad and partially in the language of Shakespeare rather than in (translated) Spanish hasn’t done much to change either Pineiro’s ambition or scope, with his latest again a very modest, almost mumblecore-y film about young bourgeois women who talk a lot — and often very fast — about their trouble with men. Only in an extended sequence late into the proceedings, in which the Argentinean lead meets her American father (played by indie director Dan Sallitt) for the very first time, do we get a sense that Pineiro has tried to move outside of his comfort zone and does the film really become affecting.

That said, Cinema Guild has distributed both Viola and The Princess of France stateside, so they might want to take a chance on this and make it a Shakespearean hat trick. This Locarno competition title will premiere in the U.S. at the upcoming New York Film Festival.  

Like in The Princess of France, Hermia & Helena opens with a prolonged, carefully choreographed shot that's eye-catching but in hindsight seems mainly intended to relieve the crew of having to do similar cinematic acrobatics once the cast of characters and their foibles are introduced. That’s not to say that Pineiro’s regular cinematographer, Fernando Lockett, doesn’t do a good job or that he’s simply repeating what he’s done for Pineiro before — there seems to be more air around the characters than in the previous films, which tended to privilege the medium closeup — but that, just like the director himself, he only occasionally seems to want to stretch himself or stray from what he knows will work.

The film kicks off with Carmen (Maria Villar, a Pineiro regular) welcoming the scruffy Yank Lukas (Keith Poulson) into her apartment in a Big Apple highrise. She’s completed an artistic residency in the city and has packed everything up and is ready to go; he works for the institute that gave Carmen her fellowship. Not much later, Camila (Agustina Munoz, also on her fourth Shakespeare-inspired collaboration with the director), a friend of Carmen’s, arrives from Buenos Aires to take her place.

Camila’s personal project is to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish and then go back to Argentina to rehearse it — much like Princess’s protagonist, who came back from Mexico to rehearse a radio-play version of Love’s Labour’s Lost — but apart from that, she seems to absorb everything that Carmen has left behind, including not only her apartment but also her dalliance with Lukas and an enigmatic relationship with the Frenchwoman Danielle (Mati Diop), a flirty and forward ex-fellow who’s on a road trip to New York and who sends a postcard from every state to Carmen’s address. To complicate matters further, a local filmmaker, Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa), declares he wants to marry Camila (never mind the two actors have zero chemistry together).  

These elements are all playful ingredients of a romantic roundelay that echoes — though only occasionally explicitly parallels — the Bard’s play that Camila is translating. Bits of Shakespeare’s text and possible Spanish equivalents appear occasionally onscreen and there's also a short by Gregg that's made from footage of a 1941 black-and-white film with a voiceover based on Du Maurier's Rebecca that's spliced in, though the film’s overall tone is never too academic or intellectual. Indeed, aided by a jazzy, piano-driven score, Pineiro manages to keep things light and airy, especially for the film’s first half.

Interestingly, this is Pineiro’s first part of his self-proclaimed Shakespeareads series that runs well over an hour, though it doesn’t feel like that extra running time adds much. Many elements feel extraneous here, starting with all the scenes shot in Argentina, which add some background color and a peek at Leo (Julian Larquier, the protagonist of Princess), Carmen’s boyfriend, who has remained behind in Buenos Aires, but not much else. There’s little effort to draw clear parallels between what happens in the Big Apple and back in BA, or to chronicle Carmen’s homecoming and how she might be taking over Camila’s place back home now that her friend is gone. And an artificial division into chapters, named after one or several characters that appear in it, interrupts the flow of the narrative more than it provides a sense of novelistic breadth; in the end, and despite the film's title, the story remains very modestly centered on just Camila.

The film’s best scenes take place in winter (!) in rural upstate New York state, where Camila manages to see her American dad, Horace (Sallitt), for the first time (the character’s presence is probably inspired by Shakespeare's Egeus, though Horace is a very different man). They play a game in which they both get to ask each other questions as a way to speed up their acquaintance and this lends a very jocular quality to their awkward first encounter while also shedding light on who they are as people. While viewers might be amused by Camila’s romantic travails, it is only here that she finally becomes a fully rounded human being who is also extremely touching.

Production company: Trapecio Cine
Cast: Agustina Munoz, Maria Villar, Pablo Sigal, Kyle Molkzan, Ryan Miyake, Oscar Williams, Mati Diop, Julian Larquier, Keith Poulson, Dan Sallitt, Laura Paredes, Dustin Defa
Director-screenwriter: Matias Pineiro
Producers: Graham Swon, Melanie Schapiro, Jake Perlin, Andrew Adair
Director of photography: Fernando Lockett, Tommy Davis
Production designer: Ana Cambre
Costume designer: Ana Cambre
Editor: Sebastien Schjaer

Not rated, 87 minutes