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. Simply 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 you know to be real but feel entirely 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 specialized in making talky comedies inspired by (but not strictly 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. Pretty much the same situation befalls the main character of his latest movie. 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.
Even though every single one of Piñeiro’s movies alludes to a specific Shakespeare play, the parallels are loose and thematic, sometimes purposely opaque. In fact, Hermia & Helena, in its use of dreams as a structural device, might be the most transparent in its inspiration. Those familiar with the Shakespearean comedy will remember the young lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream flowing in and out of love thanks to the hijinks of a particularly fickle group of fairies. Accordingly, we meet Camila as she expresses deep devotion for one lover, only to see her casually exchange him for another moments later. Then, as Piñeiro flashes back to Camila’s life in Buenos Aires, we learn there was more to the story than was thought. More lovers, more secrets, more hijinks. This format is repeated a couple of times, and each proves more revealing than the last.
Camila is the type of privileged traveller who already has a pretty comfortable and fulfilling life back home in Argentina. When we see her mere hours away from driving to the airport, she is not sure if she actually wants to travel to New York. Once there, she says she’ll finish her translation as quickly as possible so she can return. After a while we catch up to the fact that everything she says is fickle and ever changing. That she has more than reason for traveling, and that she is willing to alter her plans depending on what (or who) presents themselves along the way. Turns out Camila is the product of a couple of travelers not unlike her. 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.
The revelations about Camila’s family history are indicative of a movie that understands how seductive it is to be presented with the opportunity to reinvent yourself as much as it understands how these opportunities can result in complicated, sometimes regretful situations. As Hermia & Helena flashes back and forth between countries, climates, past, and present, it weaves a tapestry of interconnected love affairs so capricious and fleeting that they begin to feel like dreams. As much as she wants, it is impossible for Camila to follow every single possible path. If love in Piñeiro is as petty as it is in Shakespeare, the key difference is that pixie dust doesn’t leave a hangover but real life does.
The critique I’ve seen most often leveled at Piñeiro’s cinema is that it’s both too slight (focused on young people falling in and out of love) and too opaque. The latter claim stems from the structural and stylistic playfulness of these films. Viola (inspired by Twelfth Night) and The Princess of France (inspired by Love’s Labour Lost) use repetition and editing tricks to blur the line between reality and fiction, but those movies took place during the rehearsal of the plays that inspired them. If those were movies about performance, then Hermia & Helena is a movie about transformation. This is, after all, a story about a translator, a traveler, and a woman who can’t stop changing. The fact that the movie is more interested in the process of transforming than the results might be frustrating to some viewers, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This review, initially published in May 2017, was revised and re-edited in May 2020.