Beautiful Games: Matías Piñeiro on The Princess of France


By Andrew Tracy

While the opening proper of Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France will (or at least deserves to) be one of the most celebrated sequences of any film this year, the voiceover prologue that precedes it is perhaps the more telling in terms of Piñeiro’s ongoing project: a call-in radio show host announces, in Italian, the playing of the next request (Schumann’s First Symphony, “composed in just four days, between January 23rd and January 26th, 1841”), rattles off the roll call of instruments composing the piece (“Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and harp”), notes the running time of the first movement (10 minutes, 28 seconds), and concludes with a special dedication “to Lorena.”

The precise taxonomy of the artwork’s physical production, the measuring of its temporal boundaries both in composition and performance, and its appropriation and repurposing as a missive to a (current? prospective?) lover—there could be few more succinct summations of Piñeiro’s deliciously peculiar modus operandi. For Piñeiro, all of whose works to date have derived from classic literary sources—The Stolen Man (2007) and They All Lie (2009) from the writings of the 19th-century Argentinean humanist Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Rosalinda (2010), Viola (2012), and The Princess of France from the comedies of Shakespeare—culture is material in the most fundamental sense. Created by human hands and consumed in some manner of physical form within some demarcated duration (whether it be in Béla Tarr marathon form or Piñeiro’s beguilingly brief afternoon constitutionals), it is, in its very concreteness—its ability to be picked up, held, shared, circulated—a potential palimpsest of meanings. The internal coherence of the artwork qua artwork is continually shaded by the malleable meanings of the artwork-as-token. Just as in Princess’ prologue the Schumann symphony, when requested and (re)played on the radio, is mobilized as an invitation to possible seduction, later in the film two paperback copies of Love’s Labour’s Lost become loci of clandestine passion and emergent jealousy.

As those examples indicate, The Princess of France, as with its companion pieces in Piñeiro’s self-titled “Shakespeareads” project, adheres to its respective Bardic model (after Rosalinda’s riff on As You Like It and Viola’s divine play with Twelfth Night) in linking its narrative form to the capricious currents of desire. Even as Piñeiro’s Shakespeare films play fast and loose with their ostensible source texts, they nevertheless extend and play infinite variations upon the core of the comedies: a pre-Deleuzian conception of desire as a malleable, mutable, but endless flow from one node to the next, transforming its agent’s conception of its reality as it alights upon ever more objects of affection. In Shakespeare, this radical idea is of course contained within the plot conventions of masquerade, deception, and final, coincidence-dependent resolution: in Twelfth Night, Olivia’s love for the cross-dressed Viola can be safely displaced onto Viola’s twin brother Sebastian; in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Princess and her ladies-in-waiting befuddle their suitors by swapping identities during their bouts of wooing, until the climactic passing away of the Princess’ father allows for a moralistic injunction against all the preceding fickleness and frivolity, the gravity of death grounding desire’s derangement of the senses.

In Piñeiro, conversely, desire is given its head and gallops unchecked around his circles of friends and lovers, almost all of whom share both designations by films’ end. As with Rosalinda and Viola, The Princess of France centres on a troupe of Buenos Aires actors engaged in rehearsals for an unconventional Shakespearean production: here, an adaptation of the same gender-bending pastiche earlier seen performed in Viola, incorporating elements of LLL (with an electronic bossa nova backing) as well as passages from a wealth of other Bardic works. (The play’s prologue ropes in the Chorus’ opening oration from Henry V, while the epilogue spoken after the film’s closing credits is that from Piñeiro’s beloved As You Like It.) Returned to B.A. from Mexico after the death of his father—another of Piñeiro’s evident but free rhymes with the plot of his source play—the troupe’s impresario Victor (Julián Larquier) gets the band back together to mount a radio version of the work’s previous theatrical incarnation. Naturally, love is the other labour which he is here to undertake: even as he has begun an affair with the pregnant Ana (the marvellous María Villar, Viola’s Viola herself) and coolly lays the groundwork for a future assignation with casual acquaintance Carla (Elisa Carricajo), he is seeking to reunite with his ostensible girlfriend Paula (Augustina Muñoz), who, unbeknownst to him, has hooked up with his friend Guillermo (Pablo Sigal), who is taking over Victor’s role (as the Princess) in the new production.

As the above indicates, to simply describe Piñeiro’s plots is a labour unto itself. One practically requires a map (or a flow chart) to keep track of the assorted amorous currents as they cross and converge, as well as the narrative convolutions to which they give rise; if the title had not already been co-opted by him whom our august editor has dubbed the Bad Pedro, one could rechristen almost any of Piñeiro’s films Labyrinth of Passion. The smooth, sensuous ease with which Piñeiro’s scenes and sequences unfurl lulls one into a state of almost narcotized bliss, until you realize with a start that you have become lost along the way—that the deceptive plainness of presentation and the gentle surge of Piñeiro’s almost unbroken stream of dialogue have disguised a cycle of repetitions (another already taken, all-purpose Piñeiro alternatitle: La ronde), a slippage between dream and reality, or the revelation of parallel and perhaps equally valid realities.

It’s perhaps this light, brilliantly controlled strain of the fantastic that accounts for the almost gossamer quality of Piñeiro’s films. Ever ready to take flight, they remain tethered to earth by the faces, bodies, and voices of the director’s wonderful stock company of Every(wo)man players; they’re playful without being frivolous, virtuosic without being showy, erotic without explicitness, transgressive without shock. As cultural objects, too, the films refuse to be pinned down within the film-world economy: while the 90ish-minute The Stolen Man and They All Lie existed safely within the feature-film realm, the slightly-more-than-60-minute runtimes of Viola and The Princess of France render the films neither fish nor fowl within a festival circuit that tends to operate under the assumption that the twain of Feature and Short never shall meet.

This is not to say, of course, that the ever affable Piñeiro styles himself either in his films or in person as any kind of a revolutionary, let alone a Barthesian masterpiece-maker who has opted to found his own genre rather than dissolving an old one. And indeed, that same gossamer quality that makes his work so enchanting almost makes one hesitant to acclaim it in too-grand terms; the aptly diminutive title of the Piñeiro retrospective programmed by Brad Deane at TIFF Cinematheque earlier this year (Divertimentos) nicely captures its subject’s manner and method both. Yet for all his charming modesty, Piñeiro has brought this heavy fate upon himself. As The Princess of France attests, he is one of the most exciting and accomplished filmmakers working today—if for nothing else that, with the electric, late-arriving thrill of that opening sequence, he can make the Beautiful Game exhilarating even for those of us who couldn’t give a toss about it.

Cinema Scope: There’s a lot to talk about in regards to the literary provenance of the film, but let’s start with the visual side of things, since the films does. The opening of The Princess of France is one of the most quietly spectacular sequences you’ve ever done, and unique as well in that it’s done in long shot, as opposed to the mediums or close-ups you usually work in. How did you conceive this shot?

Matías Piñeiro: Well, as you know, this is the third film of a series, and the series works on the idea of variations. Even if it’s done with the same people in the same city with the same topics—love, Shakespeare, Fernando Lockett, María Villar—there are decisions that are different from the start. I was very conscious of the close-ups in Viola, and so here I decided that I have to push myself into doing things that I haven’t done and to see what I can do in that, with other decisions. So that’s why I said, “OK, I have to think what I can do in a wide shot.” So I started thinking, and I thought that I never put sports in my films—and really, sports are like filmmaking because there’s movement, there’s organization, and actually there’s a choreography also. I’m not very fond of football, because I’m terribly clumsy… I’m not a sports guy, so I said, “OK, let’s include sports!” And then there was something else that I don’t do much in my films, that is to put in extra-diegetic music. I like that Schumann piece in particular and it was very helpful in the process of writing—I could not focus, and when I was listening to that piece of music I somehow could focus.

And so I put everything together and got this idea because I thought, even though I’m not very fond of football, I am sure there is something very attractive about it, so let’s try to connect with that, let’s do something with a wide shot, let’s do something with this piece of music, and let’s not take it too seriously at the same time. I’m very much a chamber filmmaker in a way, so I wanted to start with the opposite—something that you have to organize in a big space, with people shouting and running around, another kind of organization of my mise en scène. I think it’s interesting to put oneself in different situations that at first you would think you are not able to handle, or that you are not very keen on handling. But then you do it, because you have a crew, you have ideas, and you have a moment to think.

Scope: What you say there about setting yourself new challenges and new problems reminds me of something quite similar that the Dardennes said in an interview around the time of L’enfant (2005): that in the previous film they’d had a single protagonist, in this film they had two, in the next they were going to try to move up to three, and maybe in 20 years they’d work their way up to a group. It’s something that strikes me about a number of the most interesting filmmakers today: it’s not a question of “creating” in some kind of Romantic sense, but of setting these problems or obstacles for oneself and making the film out of that.

Piñeiro: Yeah, yeah. It becomes a little bit of a performance. Like, making a film is capturing an experience that you live through, even these films that are very much based on fiction, on actors, on theatre. Film benefits from risk. What I mean is, you kind of have something that you propose against the world: I have a script and ideas and something that is very much a composition, but then I like to enter into a dialogue with the world within which I’m working, even if that world is a football field, Even if it’s a tree, even if it’s a cloud, or even if it’s a person. It doesn’t have to be big, but I do think I always try to capture that performance aspect of making a film.

Scope: You were mentioning earlier that one of the central aspects of the film—the painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau on the postcard that Ana gives to Victor—was actually suggested to you by your DP, Fernando Lockett. Can you talk about how that developed, and about how you and he work together in general?

Piñeiro: In terms of Fernando, that’s a collaboration that we’ve been developing for eight, ten years now—I’ve never shot a feature without him. And I think that we share certain sensibilities—a certain formalistic sensibility, a certain care for composition, for framing—and the films take shape when we talk, when I propose ideas or he proposes ideas. I really like to hear, to listen—I mean, sometimes I’m not that considerate because maybe I have my own ideas, but it’s very important to listen to the people that you decide to work with. And actually, the new film, I talked about it to Fernando when it was just a vague idea, and next day he sent me the Bouguereau painting, and I realized that somehow with this picture, you had the story of the film.

So I started developing the script while looking at that painting—which was actually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I would go there to see it—and there was something there that seemed to me kind of a satire on this genre of painting: these four naked women surrounding this man in the centre, where usually in these paintings it’s the ladies getting raped. There was something about that movement, that circular movement around this centred man, that I thought would be a good structure for the film. And so I structured the whole film based on this image that my DP showed me. So there’s a method there—it’s weird, it’s crooked, but it has to do with a relationship of life: of spending time, of talking, of sending things to each other. And trusting that when he sends something to me, he means it.

Scope: You’ve developed this stock company of actors who you work with from film to film, but even though they’re all very distinctive as people, their characters tend to blend together—apart from María, who has a kind of reoccurring character throughout the films, this watchful outsider role. But in the new film even she isn’t really playing the kind of part we normally think of her in. Do you have a set idea about each one of these actors and the kind of part they’ll be playing, or do you try to vary it up from film to film? Does thinking about them as actors, and also as people off-screen, help you when you’re conceiving the film?

Piñeiro: I do try to vary it up, but it’s actually all those things. I cannot start thinking about the plot if I don’t know who is who. And even though I develop the character for each person, the plot is also built upon the person. But I always try to change the things for them to do, so it’s not boring for them. María was more passive in Viola, so in this one she’s more active, has more character—she’s more uncomfortable, more tense. And then you have the things that life brings: María was not pregnant when we did Viola, and for this one she was pregnant. And I like that the lover, Victor’s lover, is pregnant, but she’s a single woman. That brings something new, a woman who can express her sexuality while being pregnant, who can continue on with her own life as it’s always been.

But every actor has something that repeats in each of their roles. Julian, who plays Victor, has this very masculine attitude that I was trying to work around—he’s kind of this ladies’ man, even though he doesn’t really look it! I think that he has something physical and interesting to show, and that’s why I chose him. And I trusted him.

Scope: Your Shakespeare films were conceived as an ongoing series, but as you were saying, the new film only really started to take shape with the Bouguereau painting. Did you begin the series with any kind of overarching design, with a plan for where each of the successive films would go?

Piñeiro: No, no, it’s one by one. They’re autonomous, but in the end they come together because they are all working with the same, this really strong idea, which is the female roles in Shakespeare’s comedies. When I did Rosalinda I had no idea I was going to make a second one. At first the series was a love affair that I had with As You Like It, I wanted to do As You Like It seven times. And then I realized that there were things in the other plays that I liked. So I said OK, maybe Twelfth Night, maybe Viola… and before moving towards making Viola I had done a play—an actual play which is shown in Viola and which you see a scene from being recorded for the radio in The Princess of France—and that experience in the theatre pushed me into continuing the film project. I had never done a play before, I liked doing the play, I was very happy in doing it, I would do it again, but I think that it was not perfect—it was a turn into something that would be a film project. And there is where I started developing more consciously the idea of a series. So now it’s Viola, and then it’s going to be the Love Labour’s Lost section of my play [with The Princess of France], and now I want to do something with a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream here in the US, and so on.

Scope: The films all start from the same basic scenario of a troupe rehearsing a theatre production, but from that common starting point they branch off to become these very complex narratives: shifting time frames, multiple perspectives of the same action, or different versions of the same action, these almost imperceptible shifts between reality and dream. When you’re conceiving the film and writing the script, how do you go about building up all of these various narrative layers? Do you have a kind of map of where you want to go?

Piñeiro: I have a structure. I write a lot in handwriting, like my notes, and I like to structure in sequences, like big chunks. Here, as I was looking at the painting, I was saying, “OK, there should be like one section for each lady.” So at first it’s divided into five chapters, five blocks: the first one will be with the character of Lorena and do this and this and this, and then I start to build each one and start putting bridges in between them, and it gets more complex as I keep working—so for instance the fourth chapter is inside of the third one, and so on. But at first it’s these five blocks, and then this idea that I wanted to follow this circle of movement, like Ophüls in La ronde (1950), this idea that each chapter passes off to the other one, like the, how do you call it…when you have four runners and they give a stick to each other…

Scope: A relay.

Piñeiro: Yeah! I like the idea of the relay in this film, how in the first section the girls are talking about someone resembling this painting, and that gives the stick to the next chapter; and then at the end of the second chapter the postcard appears, and that’s the stick that connects to the third one. And so I start doing that all the time: the fourth one is inside the third one, and then to the fifth chapter, where the film really begins…somehow.

Scope: You mention there that first transition, where the girls comment that Victor’s ex Natalia (Romina Paula) resembles the girl in the painting, which is of course another of these extra-cinematic reference points you include in your films. But it never seems as if we are to read these references as completely aligned with what we’re seeing on screen: Natalia sort of resembles this woman, yes, and María’s character in Viola has some kind of correlation with the heroine of Twelfth Night, but it’s never exact—it’s more points of similarity that help carry us around this circuit that you describe.

Piñeiro: Yeah. I think that it’s important not to underline things, not to impose certain ideas to someone who is watching. You have to put up, like, stimuli, for people to make their own connection. So one tends to point them along the way, but then it’s nice when people find things that you were not expecting. And I think that that is also part of my way of composing the film, because I’m not tightening everything…I mean, the film is pretty tight, but I try not to be so obvious in metaphors or in the relationship between this and that. Of course, the painting doesn’t really look like Natalia, but at the same time it’s interesting that to make those comparisons…I like this idea of “half-way thoughts,” you know? I think it’s more creative than to just be certain. I think that uncertainty and ambiguity are more creative. Or at least they help me to form my storytelling. I have a feeling that I can build more of an interest for someone that is watching if I leave these things not so perfect; they’re more curious, more intriguing, more sensual, actually.

Scope: You seem to deal in a similar way with the Shakespeare plays you work with. It’s a loving relationship with the text, of course, but it’s not completely respectful to the letter of it: you mix and match pieces of text from different plays, and even compose fragments to make them fit, as when Guillermo reads out the Chorus’ prologue from Henry V with the scenario details adjusted for Love’s Labour’s Lost. It suggests something along the lines of what Orson Welles would do in Chimes at Midnight (1965) and elsewhere, this very free relation to the text.

Piñeiro: I work with the plays I like, and that are similar for me. So the comedies are that for me, and when I did the play I was not able to include that prologue and the epilogue [from As You Like It], so I felt that I had to do this because I felt there was something there to be shown: there was something there that related to what I’m doing, this idea of acting or imagination that the Elizabethan theatre is asking for, or that Shakespeare is asking for, that the Chorus is asking for. I think that many of the representations of Shakespeare nowadays don’t follow very well that statement: they try to present the plays as if they were realistic tales, which they are not.

Scope: So these prologues and epilogues add a kind of presentational aspect, you think, this idea of direct address.

Piñeiro: Yes, of course. These are materials for which you have to work with. I think it’s respectful to work with them and not capture them in a glass box—like to free them, and do the best that you can with them, and put them in motion. I don’t think that back then they would like to be conservative and keep everything completely faithful. People in Elizabethan times knew that things were changing in the performances of these plays, that phrases were changed, that things were adjusted to the circumstances of the individual representation. So there are all these conventions from working back then that can be illuminating today. And I think that maybe when Orson Welles, when he does Othello (1952) and puts everybody naked in the sauna, a Turkish bath… Elizabethans didn’t have a Turkish bath, but because of the production, the way he presents it, it works. It’s Shakespeare. And I think about that idea, I learn from it, I saw what Orson Welles does with the text: he really does cut it, he cuts out a lot of text from Shakespeare, because he cannot do everything with the budget he has. And if you can’t do it, don’t transform it, just do what you can do: express what you are capable of expressing from what the book or the original source is providing. It’s not that I should do the entire play. The entire play is the entire play: you can read it, or go to the theatre. I like the cinema to do something else, to do some work. Usually those are the films I like the best, like the Welles films. I like when they can build something new for the actual play, where there’s not a competition, it’s obvious that this is an object from which you can nurture, and do something different.

Scope: You just used the term “object” in relation to the play, and I think that really speaks a lot to the sense of culture in your film. We often think of culture as something ineffable, or transcendent, almost a spiritual force, but your films have such a material sense of culture. The plays, the paintings, the music that Viola pirates, the two paperback copies of the play and the postcard that are some of the “batons” in your relay in The Princess of France—they’re physical objects that people can hold, can pass on and reuse.

Piñeiro: In the film you have the actual painting and then you have the postcard, and they are treated in kind of the same way, without judging the copy. The copy is there for some other motive. And you can admire the original and all that, but if you sacralize it, if you put it in that glass box, you are somehow killing it. And I like that the characters can talk and refer to Bouguereau as a jerk or as a super-conservative guy, but at the same time they can have some fixation with his painting, or relate it to their own lives. You put these objects in your life and you relate to them. And I think that the fiction produces from those encounters, you know, some sparkles…sparks! Some sparks appear when you put things together like that. You put things together that are not supposed to be together and you force them into being. That’s fiction.

Scope: In your previous films the women have always dominated, and of course they still dominate in The Princess of France, but this is also the first of your films which has a male protagonist at its centre—at least nominally, as he is often more acted upon than acting himself. What prompted this shift?

Piñeiro: As I told you about this game of variations, with this one I really wanted to give more space to the male role because in the previous ones the women were at the centre of everything. But in that way the film is kind of tricky, because the male protagonist is the centre of it, but you have different points of view on how he is from the different girls. You know about him through a dream of one of the girls (Lorena), and then you know through a lover (Ana), and then you talk about a sequence in the past (Carla’s memory of dancing with him in a nightclub), and then you are in a strange moment of many combinations of opportunities (Natalia’s parallel-reality attempts to get back into the play), and then you are with the girlfriend (Paula), the actual girlfriend that he came back down to rescue, in a way. So in the end maybe you do know what he’s thinking, but he’s constructed by these views of the girls. And I thought that was interesting, to put him at the centre but never know exactly what he’s thinking, who he really is.

I think that in that sense I’m again following the painting, where the man is the centre, but he’s an object. In the film Victor has a personality, but I like that it’s still a wholly female film, because it’s the girls who are manipulating, who are active. I was thinking that if I want to have a male figure that had something of what the girls of my other films have, that he does to the girls what the women in my films do to the men, it becomes something that I don’t appreciate much. So I tried to look for another sort of male model. It can be a masculine role, too, but without the obvious ideas about how a man can be with women.

Scope: At the beginning of the film Victor does seem to very much be the kind of traditional figure of the ladies’ man, the male predator, but as you were saying he’s kind of preyed upon—with his own consent of course, but it’s really the women who are all interested in him in their various ways, and are after him for what he can give them. It’s taking this traditional, active male role and putting a kind of passive mask over it. And of course that relates to the film’s title, and the role that Victor plays in the theatrical production: he is the Princess.

Piñeiro: Uh huh. Super feminine! I like that. It’s the same thing you were saying before, about these connections not matching up perfectly: it’s a man being a princess instead of, say, María. Which would be obvious, and dumb, in a way.

Scope: Apart from the great seduction scene in Viola, almost all of the romantic couples, and romantic couplings, in your films are exclusively heterosexual. But there’s also this kind of pansexual current running through the films: these ideas of gender masquerade, or swapping of sexual identities, that of course come from the plays as well. What interests you about the use of these devices in the plays, and how do you translate that over to the films?

Piñeiro: Sometimes I think that in my films the characters are all, like, men dressed as women—or maybe women dressed like men! But it doesn’t matter. It’s true that they are all heterosexual relationships, but I think that it can go either way, or all kinds of ways. That’s why in Viola they can seduce each other, and how in The Princess of France all the women are kind of the same woman—they’re interchangeable, in a way. I also was thinking that maybe, when one runs out of ideas, one should make, like, remakes of the same film but with a gender change, and see what happens. And I think that it would be the same, that if one girl turned out to be a man, it wouldn’t have a difference in the plot. I’m trying to blur those differences, the roles that a man should play and the roles that a woman should play. Because of course in Shakespeare’s time they were that ideal—the men played female parts, and they were as feminine as women can be! That was accepted, that there should be that mixture, that fusion. And I think it’s more interesting, more ambiguous. Like I said, I’m very attentive to that ambiguity.