Anyone who has so much as tried to move to a different country knows it’s not an easy thing to do. From needless amounts of paperwork to ridiculously restrictive laws, reality will put a quick check on anyone’s fantasy of packing things up and starting anew. And that’s not even taking into account the desperation of those who not only want, but need to emigrate. Just living in another country is a weird thing. The more you stay there, the more your life back home feels like a dream. You might as well have moved to a different planet. And yet, life does not stop, and the people back home keep on living and informing who you are and what you do. This push and pull between two places that are equally real but feel similarly fake is explored playfully and honestly in Matias Piñeiro’s wonderful new movie, Hermia & Helena, which opened in (very) limited release this Friday.
Piñeiro is an Argentinian director who’s specialized in making talky indie comedies inspired (but not really based on) the works of William Shakespeare. His name might ring a bell to art-house audiences, who’ve come to know him as a recurring presence at the New York Film Festival (where Hermia & Helena premiered last fall). After making quite a few movies back home in Buenos Aires, Piñeiro moved to New York sponsored by a an artistic fellowship program. That’s pretty much the same situation the protagonist of Hermia & Helena is in. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) is a theatre director who’s made the trip to New York to work on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Those familiar with Shakespearean comedy will know that the young lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream flow in and out of love with each other quickly and often thanks to the hijinks of a particularly fickle group of fairies. Piñeiro has a lot of fun with this concept. Even though the parallels to Shakespeare aren’t always evident, Piñeiro has made a genuinely playful film, which is often as tricky as the fairies of the play. Like many a Shakespearean protagonist, Camila expresses deep devotion for one lover, only to casually exchange him for another. Then, Piñeiro flashes back to the let us know there was more tot he story than we initially thought. More lovers, more secrets, more hijinks. He repeats this format a couple of times, each more revealing than the last.
This is not only a fun structure, but an effective conduit for the movie’s themes. The thing is, Camila is the type of privileged traveller who already has a pretty comfortable and fulfilling life back home in Buenos Aires. When we first meet her -hours before she has to drive to the airport- she isn’t even sure if she actually wants to travel to New York. She does, of course, but once there she says she’ll finish her translation really quickly and go back home as soon as possible. Only this isn’t truly how she feels. At least not quite. She hasn’t come to New York just to write, there are quite a few other personal plans (people) in her agenda, not to mention the unforeseen plans (people) that present themselves along the way.
Camila exhibits the traits of the young aimless traveller who has nothing to lose; who has their whole life ahead of them, and would rather get into a big mess of a situation than let an opportunity go to waste. Of course, every opportunity that she does or fails to take has repercussions, and involves other people. Camila herself is the product of a couple of such travelers. Her dad (an American) met her mom (an Argentinian) when they were both abroad in Australia. They never saw each other again, but their decision not to let a good opportunity go to waste resulted in a daughter who is (perhaps unwittingly) following in their footsteps.
One of the many great things about this movie is that it understands that this type of people tend to somehow attract each other. It also understands that Camila isn’t the only one making or breaking plans (and relationships) in order to try something new in a different place. There are always new promises to make, and new promises to break. The movie understands the seduction of the desire to reinvent oneself, and the regret that comes later, when you look back. Love can be as quick and petty as a fairy, but pixie dust doesn’t leave a hangover, real life does.
Some who have seen Piñeiro’s earlier work have described this movie as a bit of a step down for the director. This being the first movie of his I have seen, I find it revelatory. The birth of a deep interest in a new filmmaker and his work, that could very well grow into fascination. If his Viola (inspired by Twelfth Night) and his Princess of France (inspired by Love’s Labour Lost) do as great a job as Hermia & Helena of crystalizing their themes and finding new energy in Shakespeare’s evergreen but dangerously deified catalogue, then I can’t imagine them being anything less than extraordinary.
That being said, I would share a word of caution those who will seek out the movie based on this review (and I hope you do). At first glance, Hermia & Helena could be wrongly dismissed as too slight, pointless even. Though it’s really fun to watch, it’s the kind of film whose lack of serious conflict will make some feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Others, like me, will not only feel like it’s going somewhere, but everywhere. I suspect my own personal experience moving from South America to New York played a big role in my loving this movie. Take this review with a grain of salt if you must, but know that this movie spoke to me on a very personal level… and isn’t that what film’s supposed to do?