The opening moments of Matías Piñeiro’s sprightly Hermia and Helena quietly declare the film’s interest in duplicity and obfuscation. From a floral dissolve to a pan across an apartment terrace, soccer field, park, and street, our attention is constantly shifting, and when the camera settles on a subject, it’s not clear even then whether or not what we’re looking at is what we’re supposed to be looking at. “I’m always up for contradiction”, our heroine Camila (Agustina Muñoz) announces, and so must the viewer be if they are going to keep up with this cleverly diffuse work.
Camila is a visiting fellow completing a residency in New York, her task being to provide a Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rather than use the play as a device which the rest of the film’s action revolves around, however, Piñeiro instead opts to focus on the visual impact of the text itself, often overlaying the hand-scribed translated words of the play onto the frame (sometimes accompanied by some inverse-color tinting) in an act of cinematic trickery that reveals both multitudes and nothing about the machinations of the relationships at hand. The perspective given on these relationships, both past and present, that Camila explores throughout, are what imbue the film with its signature flightiness—which is not to suggest superficiality, but rather the freedom that one can experience when displaced in another country, another culture.
With a slipperiness that could only belong to the most astute of Rivette devotees, Piñeiro has no problem alternating between long takes of conversations defined by their lingual celerity between characters on one continent and those on another, earlier or later in the chronology. These pieces never connect in an obvious way, as Piñeiro makes it clear narrative (and at one point, cinephilic) digressions are the source of his pleasure, and there will be a whirlwind of traveling around the city—New York through the eyes of foreign artists usually yield interesting, sometimes sublime cinematic results, and Hermia and Helena is no exception—before winding up at a wholly unexpected but satisfactory conclusion. The most rewarding of these digressions takes place out of the city, upstate, where Camila takes a day to meet with her estranged father, played by a delightfully calm Dan Sallitt (whose casting evinces yet another interest Piñeiro has in cinephilic intersections); remarkable because it avoids all possibility of ascribing any characterization to Camila based on her father’s absence, instead depicting an interesting encounter between two adults who have ostensibly have a connection, but one that needs to be found rather than made.
Hermia and Helena is very likely the most nimble film playing at the festival, and to me represents the most exciting thread that current independent arthouse cinema has to offer, films made by those preternaturally aware of their surroundings in both life and art, and in creating works that contribute to both.