The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Shakespeare in Buenos Aires.
Argentinean director Matías Piñeiro has accrued an impressive cult following in the eight years since his first feature. His latest, La princesa de Francia (The Princess of France), was one of the most anticipated films at this summer’s Locarno International Film Festival, which also included new features by such arthouse lions as Pedro Costa and Lav Diaz in its program. The film, which was met with ecstatic reviews and will also play at the New York Film Festival on October 5 and 6, is the latest installment in the director’s ongoing filmic experimentations with the work of William Shakespeare.
While As You Like It and Twelfth Night provided the foundation for Piñeiro’s previous features, Rosalinda (2011) and Viola (2012), respectively, the main source text this time around is Shakespeare’s early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. Again the play is placed in the hands of a group of Buenos Aires bohemians, played by the director’s regular troupe of actors. Here they are preparing a radio adaptation, a playful wink at the fact that Piñeiro’s films eschew and subvert conventional adaptation as well as a metonymic reflection of the film’s infatuation with language.
The characters talk, talk, talk, talk, and talk incessantly. Young, middle class, cultured, artistically inclined, professionally irresolute, and hopelessly romantic, they roam Buenos Aires and talk of life and love and art, of everything and nothing all at once. The radio play’s director is the film’s center around which everything—specifically, his actresses—revolves in a breezy carousel of dalliance and infidelity. Aside from an introductory onscreen list of characters like those at the start of plays, the film provides virtually no exposition and the viewer is left to parse the story’s romantic entanglements while drifting in a flurry of language wonderfully sublimated by Director of Photography Fernando Lockett’s ethereal, free-floating camera.
For all its airy prattle, the film possesses a deceptive depth. Over the course of its brisk seventy minutes, it is able to paint an extremely keen portrait of youth, which though located in a very specific milieu, at heart is as timeless as Shakespeare’s works themselves. In addition to its highly original repurposing of the Bard’s play, it draws from a wealth of cultural references spanning the spectrum of artistic mediums, including Robert Schumann’s Spring Symphony and the work of French 19th century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In fact, the latter’s role may be even more central than Shakespeare’s, as one of Bouguereau’s paintings served as the blueprint for the film’s script. Coming from someone else, such a statement may well have come off as pretentious posturing. When I spoke to Piñeiro about the film in Locarno, I was delighted to discover that such a statement can actually make perfect, beautiful sense.
Giovanni Marchini Camia Rosalinda was based on a character from As You Like It, while Violaon a single scene from Twelfth Night. Did you have a similar starting point for this film?
Matías Piñeiro Yeah. From one film to the other I wanted to change. Even though I’m working with the same materials—Shakespeare, my crew, Buenos Aires, a certain tone—I wanted to take initial decisions that were different and do something new each time. In Rosalinda, it was a character from all these scenes, in Viola it was only one scene. In this one I included a little bit of everything, but especially one scene that for me was the most important of that play. It has the four characters talking to each other, it’s a bit crazy, the statements they make on love and so on are ones that I wanted to include.
GMC This scene is from Love’s Labour’s Lost?
MP Yes. It’s a very nice play, kind of foolish, very playful, but in the end it has a darker side. In this film I mainly take one scene, and then I also use a couple of others. And actually there are other Shakespeare plays: there’s an epilogue from As You Like It and there’s a prologue from Henry V. Even though there’s one line that is stronger, like Love’s Labour’s Lost in this case, I like to blur things.
I wanted the texts to be very clear, which is why I tried to decontextualize them. For example, they’re not performing the play in the theatre, they’re just doing it for a mic—they’re halfway acting, in a way, and I like that. In Viola you see the actual representation and here you have something that is a little bit more detached. You don’t see the dramatization, but the concepts of what is being said. I’m working with the same things, with these Shakespeare plays, but I tried to take another perspective.
GMC Why Shakespeare?
MP Why Shakespeare? (laughter) I came to revisit Shakespeare when I was working on my second feature. The film was so different from Shakespeare that I said, “OK, it would be good to have a companion that will not influence me.” I read all of Shakespeare again and found myself very attracted to the comedies. In the comedies I found those ladies that I was not so conscious of, like Rosalinda, or Viola, or the Princess of France, or Portia, or Beatrice. They’re very powerful, and they’re very intelligent, and somehow they communicate what they say. I felt like they were talking to me in a way. (laughter) Well, not to me, but you could use those words today and they would work. I like those things that you take into the present and then they actually are in the present. When do you something with that, you don’t feel that it’s forced.
I read As You Like It and found Rosalinda. Rosalinda as a character is amazing—she’s as intelligent as Hamlet, but everybody knows Hamlet and not everybody knows Rosalinda. I like to shine a light there, move the spotlight from the guys to the women—and to the comedic women, not the women killing themselves in the tragedies. (laughter) Also, I found something of each of these characters in the actresses with whom I’d been working all this time. In Rosalinda, I found something of María Villar, the actress with whom I work a lot, and I thought it would be very interesting to photograph her working and battling against and for this text. It was the same thing with Viola and with the Princess. Or maybe there’s a detachment, but there’s a relationship between the character and the actor and that makes it go. Once I don’t find that connection anymore, I will stop.
GMC Speaking of female versus male characters, this is the first time that you have a male protagonist, yet it feels like the focus remained on the women.
MP Yes, the focus is on the women.
GMC Is this an ideological stance or do you simply feel more comfortable writing for women?
MP I think I feel more comfortable. I don’t know why, we should go to an analyst and maybe talk about my mother or something. I do have very strong females in my life and I relate to that, somehow. At the same time, I think that if it were a man, maybe it would be more directly myself. So maybe I’m dressing myself up, like in a costume party. Everything that I write has to do with myself, in a way: things that I see, or that I read, or that I experience, or friends have told me, or whatever. I put a lot of myself in, so if I were to use a man, it would revolve too much around me. Using a woman creates a distance and I can relate better with that distance.
Also, I like manipulative characters who drive the plot. If I were to use a man, something a little bit sexist would start to appear, something kind of macho. Imagine a guy that says, “Oh, I’m going to see this girl and do this and do that.” It’d be awful, he’d be like a banana. With the girls, I think another perspective appears that is better and freer and more original. The Princess of France is all around a man, but the focus is on the women. It’s how they see him and how they desire or finish desiring him. It’s like a portrait from five different perspectives. He’s there all the time, because he’s the portrait, but the painters are the women. I started off with the idea of having a man, but then I didn’t want to make it absolutely different from the previous films and I realized that I could do this: it could be all on him, he could be on screen most of the time, but the perspective could belong to the women.
GMC You call the women painters and the work of the French painter Bouguereau plays a prominent role in the film. Could you talk about this dimension?
MP I live in New York and every winter and summer holidays I travel to Buenos Aires. I work in Buenos Aires, because my crew is in Buenos Aires, the people that help me are in Buenos Aires, the institutions that help me are there and so on. So every time that I go I do something: I prepare the script, I shoot, I edit, I finish a copy, and then travel to Locarno. (laughter) A year and a half ago, I was in Buenos Aires, planning this film. I told the storyline to the DP [Director of Photography] whom I always work with, Fernando Lockett, and told him that I had this scene with four women talking and a rhythm that I appreciated and that I wanted to do something with that. I told him that it was around a boy, surrounded by some girls, and so on. The next day he sends me [Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr] on a postcard. He got the idea because of the four ladies and a guy, but he was talking to me about the light, that it was good, and so on. I liked the painting. I was surprised by the painting and I looked at it and I suddenly realized that it was a script!
GMC The painting was a script?
MP The painting showed me the script, yes. I decided that as soon as I hit writer’s block, I should look at the painting because the painting would have the solution. The day after he showed me the picture I was travelling back to New York and when I got there, I googled the painting and it turned out that it was at the Met. So I went to the Met, saw it, did some sketches—I’m lousy at drawing, but I did it all the same—and there was a lot of information. The painting was the script, somehow. You have a satyr being pushed by these women and I liked that inversion, which we were just talking about: satyrs usually rape nymphs, they’re not afraid of them, and I really liked that in the painting he was being pushed and pulled by the ladies. The ladies all looked alike, so I also liked that.
There was a circularity to the painting: the guy is the center, but then there’s a whirlpool-type of circulation in the painting. I thought that could be the structure of the film: one girl holding the hand of the other and constructing the plot, so to speak. The film is like that: it’s five chapters and when one chapter finishes, the girl gives her hand to the next, like the postcard that goes from one character to the next or the DVD that is given to someone and appears in the next chapter. There are all these connections that somehow make it flow, as the painting flows, in a way. I don’t know if all that is in the picture, but it helped me do the film, which is good enough. (laughter) For me, at least.
GMC Were you familiar with Bouguereau before? I must admit I’d never heard of him.
MP I had no clue who he was, either, but apparently he was huge back then. I started reading about him and I put all the information that I found funny in the film. This guy was super famous, he was the official artist in the salons that all the people who are famous today were kicked out of. I like that bit of vengeance that history brings to these guys. (laughter) They represented the official way of painting and then time buried them. But then, it’s also a sweet revenge because they did these paintings, they had their mastery, and you go back to the paintings and they really have something. Even though he’s super conservative and he hated the Impressionists—he was a reactionary, he was part of the academic world—there is still something there. I like that balance again.
That painting, for example, was in a brothel. It was lost. It’s amazing, the idea of art that was so important, made by the most prestigious people, but was then scattered all over at the beginning of the last century. Now, of course, his paintings are in museums, but after having a lot of success, he faded away once modernism took over. But I think that in some of his paintings, especially the ones from his later period, his obsession with realism brings him to something completely different. Especially when he worked with nymphs and all classical motifs, he was striving so much towards perfection—which I don’t really appreciate, but he was absolutely crazy about it—he was striving so hard, that in the end he made the most artificial paintings, and that I do like.
At the Musée d’Orsay there’s a room with many of his paintings and those are the best ones. They’re very tacky today. For instance, there’s one of forty women making a wave—nude women—and three satyrs watching, and it’s crazy! Then you have the portraits of the peasants, like secularized virgins, which I don’t appreciate much. But the other paintings show you that the guy went crazy in his conservatism and there’s something there.
GMC You say that one of the things you liked about the painting is that the women in it all look alike. This is also true of the actresses in The Princess of France and it takes a long time to put names to faces since there is almost no exposition at the outset, which keeps the viewer disoriented for a lot of the film. What kind of engagement do you seek from your audience?
MP The confusion is part of a strategy, mostly. There’s a rhythm that has to be sustained and that shouldn’t be obstructed by the need to understand everything. The idea is that by the end of the film you somehow know who was who. But if I have to explain it in the beginning—some people can do that beautifully, but it’s not interesting to me—it would stop the rhythmic part, it would stop the musicality that a montage should have, or a pan should have, or it would be giving information that is too obvious. It’s kind of dull to worry too much. You have to be a little bit worried, because there are things that have to be sustained, but not so worried that it hurts the rhythmic aspect of the film.
I hope that the person watching will have patience and trust. I want to start a dialogue. The film is not that crazy, it’s a little bit fast of course, but my idea is that there is a complicity, a mutual trust between us. I won’t take you as a silly person, I won’t explain everything, because certain things are better left unexplained. That way you can bring in something of yourself too, or you can think, or you can connect things from your life, and include yourself a little bit. There’s a way of provoking identification by blurring things, by bringing in a little bit of ambiguity, by not saying everything, or not showing everything. It’s about being partial, and that partiality can be a little bit disturbing for some people. I try to not be a pain—not to be a show-off, like, “Oh, I’m difficult.” I try to make a rhythm that is enjoyable, but at the same time I have to take care of that autonomous rhythm.
There’s an equilibrium. There are things that you do have to do—after all it’s representational, it’s fiction, so there are rules. But then, it’s nice to bend these rules the other way. If not, it’s like working as a policeman. I do hope that there is a propensity towards dialogue with the sounds and images that I propose, that’s the key. I think that I’m equal to my viewer: I try not to treat myself as a stupid person, so I try to have the same respect towards the audience.
GMC The cinematography does a great job of capturing and accentuating the rhythm of the text: the camera is constantly moving and floating around, like a ballet; it’s always very close to the characters, so that often the background disappears and even when it’s there, you keep the production design quite simple and the focus on the characters. What is your conception of mise-en-scène?
MP That’s something that my DP knows a lot about. I have a tendency, I can’t explain it very rationally, but I like to have a tight frame that moves all the time. It’s very much about the body and then very much about the face. It’s hard for me to open up. That’s why I started with a very open shot, because I’m trying to learn to work differently, in a way. I know I have a tendency to tighten my frame, but then this kind of obsession with control or focus or “look here,” I think is counterbalanced by the constant movement. In the constant movement you can’t control everything, and I think that those two vectors produce the final result of the film.
There is this idea of the mise-en-scène, that you don’t produce a feeling or an emotion or a sensibility by only walking one road, or drawing one line, but by drawing several lines. The intersection of all those lines makes the film, produces the movement of the film. It’s very much moving into the bodies, but then it’s moving out of them, and there is a lot of sound that hits the frame. You have a few perspectives to tell what it is you want to tell. You don’t say it up front; it’s the coincidence of many layers. I like the idea of building layers, of making something dense. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s an actress performing Shakespeare.
GMC How did you direct your DP in this regard? Did it involve a lot of rehearsing?
MP As I haven’t lived much in Buenos Aires recently, the rehearsal time has shortened a lot from the first features. Yet, since we’re a group of people that always works together, there’s a code that we don’t have to build on every time, so in a way there isn’t the need to rehearse a lot. Also, people are very busy and it’s not like my production is so big that I can say, “You know what? Don’t work for three weeks and we’ll have Campari and talk about this.” No, everybody has a lot of work. The DP was shooting another film while we were shooting this one, so he had no rest at all. That was a problem, and I was worried about him. We’re friends and we love each other, but I don’t want to abuse that bond. But he’s a tough man and he likes that.
It’s not that I direct him at all. Again, it’s a dialogue: we talk through things and he knows what I like and what I tend to do and I think I have some understanding of what he likes and what he wants to do—it’s just a matter of talking. For instance, in one of the first scenes, when the protagonist Victor appears, he’s sitting on the sofa, sleeping. I’d written that I wanted a close-up of the character. When we put him down on the sofa, asleep, and started shooting, he looked like a dead body. It was the DP who started saying, “Julian”—the actor playing Victor—“put this arm over here like this …” When you see the film, the way he organized the body of the actor, he actually put him in these very artificial positions, and it really works. If not, it would have looked like a funeral. He has the power to do that, to talk to the actor and propose things. And the actors respect that, because they know that he knows how to make them look good, move better, and so on.
This is just one example of this sort of collaborative aspect. We don’t have elections for each shot; it’s not like everyone puts in their vote. (laughter) But I try to listen a lot. I do have ideas, I did write the script, I did choose this location or that actor, so I think that once I get with the others, it’s time for me to shut up. It’s my moment to shape and brush off the material with the help of others, so I can learn from what I’m proposing, because I don’t know everything.
The same thing happens with the sound people and with the actors. I try to listen to them and incorporate them into the process. But I think it’s something normal, I don’t think it’s very special, it’s the obvious thing to do. They’re very good, they’re talented, so they have something to bring into what we are working towards.
GMC Is it almost more practical than ideological?
MP Or both: it’s an ideology of practicality. It’s not practical, because that’s too technical, this idea of practical. I like that cooperative aspect of cinema. The picture would be worse if I were doing everything by myself. He would be like a dead body: there would be bad representation of the characters and bad rhythm in the compositions. And that’s why Fernando is here, to eliminate that. The same is true for Mercedes Tennina, the sound engineer. I was doing the sound and I began with this Schumann piece and it wasn’t meant to ever come up again. Mercedes was always asking me if I didn’t want a police siren, or an elevator, or some music, or people chattering to build up the overall density of the sound, and I was like, “Stop wanting to put all these things in so that everything seems more real.”
Then she got the idea of putting the music from the beginning back on. At first, I said that was kind of tacky but then I thought, OK, let’s try it. So we put it in and something very strange happened. It’s in the beginning of the final chapter, which in the film is the chapter where a story is being told. Before that, it’s all sparkles! (laughter) The story really only starts in the final chapter. So bringing back the music with which we began the film started working in a very unconscious way on the structure of the film. Something is produced that I was not expecting and it’s something that Mercedes brought to the film. Now that I see the film, I feel that it’s a very important structural element and I can’t believe I didn’t think about something like that before. It’s not that I have to think about everything, it’s that I have to start the machine with the people involved, which then makes it work.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic, and a founding editor of Fireflies: A Film Zine.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.