Lost and Found
By Adam Nayman

The Princess of France
Dir. Matías Piñeiro, Argentina, Cinema Guild

Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France establishes its anxiousness right off the bat, with a high-angled shot of a nighttime outdoor soccer game whose participants start to switch jerseys—and competitive allegiances—in mid-scrum. What begins as a regular five-on-five contest mutates gradually into a kind of nightmare scenario, with a lone goalie facing down a full-strength squad and fleeing in terror down a back alley. As a Tati-esque sight gag, it’s consummately accomplished—a coup de cinema to top even the circular minivan confab at the mid-point of Viola (2012). And, as an overture, it’s even better than that—it quickly drenches the third entry in the Argentine writer-director’s “Shakespereads” project in a cold sweat of paranoia.

In this, The Princess of France seems to connect more directly to Piñeiro’s earlier 45-minute short Rosalinda (2010) than Viola, and not only because the earlier film ended with its own extended sequence of creepy game-playing—a wine-fuelled variation on the elementary-school classic “murder wink” that takes on a very different vibe when enacted by a group of horny, slim-waisted, twenty-something theater majors. (If looks could kill, indeed). A deftly arpeggiated riff on As You Like It that introduced the major themes of this formidable young filmmaker’s work—or rather, re-introduced them, since Piñeiro’s intricate romantic entanglements and mistaken-identity twists are always filched from Shakespeare’s comedies—Rosalinda was a master-class in different definitions of proximity. Piñeiro and his constant cinematographer Fernando Lockett got perilously close to the characters even as their motives and interrelationships—and their identities—remained remote and uncertain. Intimacy and mysteriousness is a sexy dialectic, although like a lot of genuinely sexy things, they don’t do much for impatient people.

Neither will The Princess of France, which even as a fan I must admit is less accessible than Viola, a film that went further than its predecessor or its successor in giving its audience a surrogate of sort. Its nominally eponymous heroine (María Villar) is an ad hoc DVD distributor who doesn’t realize that she dreams of being an actress until she literally dreams of being an actress, at which point she seems to take on the heroic bearing of her Twelfth Night namesake. Villar has been Piñeiro's main muse from the very beginning (she showed up in his 2007 debut The Stolen Man), and while hers is only one of several remarkable female performances in Viola (Piñeiro is almost certainly the greatest male director of women of his generation), it has a uniquely stabilizing quality all the same. Villar’s Viola may not quite know what she wants vis a vis her career or her boyfriend (the film ends with her on the verge of switching up both), but the actress more or less holds down the fort.

In The Princess of France, Villar is Ana, an actress who has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to disclose, and while intrigue may be in the eye of the beholder, I feel pretty safe in saying that this is ultimately not a major point of interest for the film. It however, give us a way to remember Ana amidst the swirl of characters in Piñeiro’s narrative, which, in the spirit of the soccer game that kicks it off, basically requires a scorecard to follow. The director provides one in the form of a cast list briefly superimposed over the action, like the title page of a dog-eared copy of a published play. Piñeiro provides a couple of those, too, in the form of two paperback editions of Love’s Labor’s Lost which are passed amongst the ensemble like hot potatoes, usually in concert with some attempted or awkwardly accomplished act of infidelity.

Ana won’t name the father of her child, but given the pace with which she and her peers practice the dark art of the post-collegiate hook-up, it could be anyone: the two likeliest male suspects are Victor (Julian Larquier), her sort-of boyfriend-of-the-moment and Guillermo (Pablo Sigal), Victor’s best friend, who has recently slept with Victor’s ex-girlfriend Paula (Augustina Munoz). (I told you that a scorecard would be necessary). All of these characters, whose romantic desires just keep rerouting and intersecting as the movie goes on, are past or present members of a Buenos Aires theater troupe in between productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost—one for the stage, one for the radio, and both gender-flipped and screwed-and-chopped in ways that thrillingly defamiliarize Shakespearean language and scenarios. Piñeiro’s simultaneous ambitions to translate, admire, honor, and re-write Shakespeare are expressed through his characters, in more ways than one. Not only do the amateur works of art within his films reflect and refract the director’s own real-life project (how very Hamlet of him), but the actual narratives unfold in animated conversation with their respective source texts.

This may be why, in trying to figure out how The Princess of France can be as phenomenally accomplished as Viola while also a bit less immediately appealing, it may be best to defer to the Bard: the play’s the thing. Love’s Labor’s Lost is not widely considered one of Shakespeare’s major comedies, perhaps due to its lack of an iconic main character. Beginning with her lack of a proper name, the Princess of France in Love’s Labor Lost is a bit of a cipher, and the play’s focus on masculine desire turns her into a symbolic figure, rather than a resourceful heroine on the order of Rosalinda in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night. At the risk of simplifying Love’s Labor Lost to describe a work whose relationship to its inspiration is dauntingly complex, both play and film are roundelays where the acts of serial flirtation and seduction seem to be symptomatic of the general condition of youth rather than the building blocks of true romance. The offsetting his-and-hers duplicities of Love’s Labor’s Lost, with first the boys and then the girls adopting various disguises to tantalize and tease their opposite numbers, are thus transplanted from Navarre and Aquitaine to Buenos Aires and turned inside out: while nobody here is actually pretending to be anybody else, they’re all harboring the sorts of secret agendas that turn everyday acts of intimacy into a form of play-acting.

All of which is to say that The Princess of France is not a very tender movie. Starting with the sexual conqueror Victor, who is the troupe’s leader (he performs the role of the Princess) and seems to have slept with all of his co-stars, the characters are self-interested in ways that are frankly not charming, even though the actors are delectable. Piñeiro has said that one of his goals is to collapse the distance between Shakespeare’s plays and the 21st century, which he does not by making the work “modern dress”—c.f. Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre production of Caesar, or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet—but illustrating how easily (and at times, insidiously) the plays infiltrate the very modern lives of the people performing them five hundred years down the line. With this in mind, The Princess of France offers up Love’s Labor’s Lost not as an enjoyable relic suitable for summertime Shakespeare in the Park, but rather as something with a bit of sting in its tail. Victor and his co-stars seem to live and breathe their work, and the shared air is ultimately stifling: the film’s final scene is startlingly abrupt, in effect choking off the breathless momentum of the preceding hour (god bless movies that run 60 minutes) and bruising our expectations (if indeed any still remain) of a Shakespearean happy ending.

The happy paradox of Piñeiro’s work is that for all its meticulous control—in terms of camera, actors, script, and, especially, tone, which I’d place somewhere in between Jacques Rivette and Hong Sang-soo—it’s also modest, starting with those truncated running times and including also the pared-down size of the narratives (everybody and everything in his movies appear to be within walking distance of one another, or maybe a quick bike ride). Parsing the The Princess of France is difficult, but not because Piñeiro is trying to throw or chasten his audience. He’s moving around within his own frame of reference, and even when that’s a faraway place—how many of us have read Love’s Labor’s Lost lately?—he always makes like Puck and extends a friendly hand in the form of a beautiful composition or an innovative editing maneuver, like an amazing mid-film montage of two characters kissing in a half-dozen different locations, a stretch of sequential cutting describing a one-night stand with the precision, efficiency and tingling eroticism of Alain Resnais or Nicolas Roeg. Or, that remarkable opening shot, which could be neatly detached and still stand proudly on its own as a great short comedy. These moments aren’t merely consolations amidst the exquisite confusion of Piñeiro’s cinema, but expressions of a playful, sensuous, cerebral sensibility that has already yielded its share of great work even as it seems to be just getting started. This is a singular career, and what’s past is, happily, just prologue.