Winter Dreams
By Daniel Witkin

Hermia & Helena
Dir. Matías Piñeiro, U.S./Argentina, Kino-Lorber

“Go back to sleep and believe this to have been just a dream,” theater director, translator, and Buenos Aires-to-NYC transplant Camilla (Agustina Muñoz) advises her now-former lover, Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa) midway through Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena. Though her command interrupts a prosaic date in the park (Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, per the movie’s obsessive specification of urban space), it follows two successive, almost dueling dream sequences. The first, a film-within-a-film made by Gregg, is a throwback experimental short tweaking the opening monologue of Hitchcock’s Rebecca: “I dreamed I went south again.” The latter is dreamt in a more literal sense by Camilla as she dozes in Gregg’s arms. In it, Shakespeare’s words are superimposed upon a reverse negative close-up of the sleeper, and recited in both the original English and Camilla’s Spanish translation, which overlap and reverberate with incantatory intensity. Rudely awakened by a call from her current paramour, Camilla quits Gregg abruptly with her gnomic send-off, leaving him in an ambiguous daze.

Hermia & Helena is the newest installment in Piñeiro’s continuing transposition of Shakespeare’s comedies onto the lives of his contemporaries, following Viola and The Princess of France, his riffs on Twelfth Night and Love’s Labor’s Lost, respectively. This time out, the director and his troupe of recurring performers and collaborators are working from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Camilla’s instruction recalls Puck at that play’s conclusion: “If we shadows have offended / Think but this and all is mended / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear.” In so doing, Piñeiro relates Camilla’s translation—and by extension his own project of interpolation—to the play’s focus on dreaming and boundary crossing. While the New York–set Hermia & Helena carries on the alternately fastidious and freewheeling sensibility of the director’s previous Shakespeare films, it’s the first to be set outside Argentina, as well as the only one thus far to engage with the Bard’s work in English.

Camilla arrives in New York for a fellowship position vacated by her friend Carmen (Maria Villar), in doing so traverses borders both national and personal. Although the relationship between the two women is kept teasingly indistinct, Camilla cites the urge to follow in her compatriot’s footsteps as reason for accepting the fellowship. For her part, Carmen is aloof and icy, with Villar cast almost against type after playing dreamy and vulnerable in Viola and The Princess of France, respectively. Moving into her friend’s old Chinatown apartment, Camilla tentatively experiments with a variety of relationships and faintly speculates on the broader arc of her life, though things remain sufficiently loose and improvisational that no one would accuse her of anything so cliché as “finding herself in the city.”

In making New York his own, Piñeiro focuses on a narrow subset of the city, an intensely localized sliver that’s also global in nature. The cultural peculiarities of New Yorkers, a favorite subject of American pop culture, are passed over unceremoniously. Describing New York’s male offerings, Carmen nonchalantly likens them to the Buenos Aires product: “You’ll see he’s like the boys here,” she says of Lukas (Keith Poulson), Camilla’s eventual love interest. Instead, Piñeiro represents an already internationalized smattering of young people, who arrive equipped with a shared pool of cultural norms and referents. To this end, the cast is populated by a vibrant group of figures recognizable from the international film festival circuit, including filmmaker Defa, actor Poulson, and critic/writer/director Dan Sallitt, with French filmmaker and actress Mati Diop gamely dropping in from Paris. If Piñeiro’s Buenos Aires comes off as a big, amorous theater troupe, his New York is idealized as a meeting place for low-key creative types from the world over. The action mainly revolves around lower Manhattan’s Columbus Park, a pleasant hub for the present-day city’s Chinese community and the former site of Five Points, an infamously brutal gangland battleground but also a near mythic presence in the city’s complex, multicultural history.

Yet if Buenos Aires and New York are shown to be culturally contiguous and largely interchangeable boys-wise, Piñeiro and his trusted cinematographer Fernando Lockett take pains to demarcate them visually and dramatically, starting with seasonal difference between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Argentina is warm and colorful, offering the precious freedom of movement that comes with being able to wear t-shirts and light dresses into the night. New York, on the other hand, is cast in somber blue tones, its denizens moving from one place to the next with the grim expediency of the chilly. This contrast carries over into Carmen and Camilla’s dual social words; Buenos Aires is inhabited by a tight-knit group of like-minded young folks, while Camilla experiences New York as a lonely expat, forging relationships one at a time, largely through awkward, apartment-bound tête-á-têtes.

These relationships make up the movie’s narrative backbone, each set apart by a chapter title identifying the two players. Piñeiro intercuts these with Camilla’s last day in Buenos Aires, identified by title cards—One Month Earlier, Two Months Earlier, etc.—that also mark the passing of time. These rather overt signals of narrative structure draw attention to the way Camilla’s relationships materialize and evaporate (Piñeiro’s characters have long been defined by promiscuity of a not exclusively but certainly quite sexual sort, which is if anything heightened by the source play), but Piñeiro’s tricky plotting goes above and beyond what is strictly demanded by the story to offer up the pleasures of storytelling for their own sake. Likewise, the director builds little motifs out of gifts, street signs, and maps. The overall effect is a sort of arbitrary specificity, tracking an apparently fungible route through the protagonist’s very uncertain journey through a strange land. Within this landscape, A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes another in a series of moving pieces. Despite the playful, self-aware hubris of Piñeiro’s overall project, tackling not just one of Shakespeare’s comedies but the lot of them, the plays are thoroughly subsumed into the heady thrill of narration that characterizes the director’s work.

Another telling point of inflection is the movie’s dedication to the late Setsuko Hara, best known for her work in Ozu’s immortal Noriko trilogy of Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story. These piercing and ineffably beautiful films are among the finest ever made about maturation, opening up pivotal moments in the communal life script as if from within. Conversely, one of the true pleasures of Piñeiro’s work is his admirable abstention from not only the conventions but also, seemingly, the concerns of the coming-of-age narrative. The moments of youth are allowed to stand on their own, with minimal pressure to amount to anything whatsoever. Yet Hermia & Helena offers a tentative glimpse beyond the myopia of youth in a third act encounter between Camilla and Horace, the birth father she’s never met, played by Sallitt with understated excellence. A mix-up leads to Camilla having to kill time in Horace’s house before he arrives, and through expert pacing Piñeiro builds a quirky sort of suspense. Their long-awaited meeting, conducted as a kind of interview, plays out as a flirtation of a wholly expected sort, accomplishing with stillness what the virtuosic high points of Viola and The Princess of France did with highly composed movement. If Piñeiro intends to keep the band together even as they age out of charmed youth, this sequence is an encouraging sign.