MATÍAS PIÑEIRO with Paul Felten
Beginning with The Stolen Man (2007) the Argentinian-born director Matías Piñeiro has made films that I can only describe as tantalizingly in-between—in between classical elegance and avant-garde jaggedness, workshop and finished product. The young characters that inhabit the movies are in a perpetual state of rehearsal—not just for art but for life, for some coherent version of selfhood that remains perpetually out of reach—and so bide their time putting on Shakespeare and playing baroque word games, exchanging romantic partners and assuming different identities; they’re both conjurers and pawns in Piñeiro’s not-entirely-unpleasant vision of bohemian purgatory. Like his previous two films —Rosalinda (2011) and Viola (2012) Piñeiro’s latest, The Princess of France (2014), concerns a company of young actors performing Shakespeare in modern-day Buenos Aires—a radio production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. I spoke with him in advance of the film’s American premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Paul Felten (Rail): Have you ever had the experience of sitting down and watching all of your films over the course of two or three days?
Matías Piñeiro: No, no.
Rail: You should try it. It’s mood-altering. They don’t feel unlike one long film, watching them like that all together. Especially considering how many of the cast members are the same.
Piñeiro: Yeah, there is really a continuance between them.
Rail: What I’m curious about is how you would describe the space that you’re asking people to be in while they’re watching these movies? And how has that changed from the first to the most recent?
Piñeiro: From one film to the other one it changes a bit because somehow I am doing one film in a dialogue with the previous one. I did this thing in the last one so now I want to try some other stuff. Now this character has done this. Now this other character does this other thing. If I had been working with only one character, now I would like to work with five. So they communicate in a way and they have a bit of a different approach. I remember in The Stolen Man I was interested in the story telling, and telling a story step-by-step, without being bureaucratic about it, without making scenes to explain things. I also wanted to learn, in a way, how to appropriate the city I live in. How can I capture the city? How can I include the city in the film? In that sense I wanted to avoid a certain bureaucracy in storytelling. I am trying to be a little bit far from conventional decisions.
Rail: When you talk about a bureaucracy in storytelling do you mean cause and effect?
Piñeiro: For instance, in order to show that we are in my house you show the entrance of the house and you organize time like: night/ day/ night/ day—some formulas or some things that make narrative very clear and effective. That may work for some films of course, but I would rather have another sort of rhythm to try to tell the story from other perspectives in a way. I know the thing that I require of a spectator is a true sense of attentiveness and willpower. It is not that you are just here: you need to enter into a dialogue. With the films, I look for accomplices, you know? Some may not connect, but some others will.
Rail: I don’t know if you would be able to have a good time watching them if you weren’t participating in that way.
Piñeiro: Yeah, things would go just like that. In that sense Viola is the hardest. And it was willingly the hardest. That’s why I said that there was a difference between films. I think that in one I was trying to learn how to tell a story without using the normal gadgets, the most conventional gadgets, and that would be The Stolen Man and in Viola I am trying to do something harder, I am trying to do a baroque piece. Like a little closed machine, an enclosed machine that works by itself. And it’s kind of mysterious and has its own logic, a little bit distant.
Rail: For me the experience of watching The Stolen Man is different from the others, because in that movie the character’s “acting” is a kind of dissembling that has a malignant effect. She’s a little bit Machiavellian, whereas in the rest of the films the performances are somehow more liberating.
Piñeiro: That’s the change from the Shakespeare film set. For example, in They All Lie (Piñeiro’s second film, 2009) they allow themselves this position of a distance. So it’s formalism in a way, with a lot of playfulness, because if not it would be like a hard wall, a sack of rock. And then I think that in the Shakespeare one, something opens—maybe it’s the Shakespeare effect. When you read Shakespeare, he’s very welcoming, in a way. Maybe the touch of Shakespeare makes it a little bit softer, and more inviting, and warm. I think that they’re warmer films. I think that in that sense, the last one, The Princess, has a little bit of—it’s not distant, but it’s harder, I think.
Rail: What do you think that’s a function of? Why do you think it’s harder? Does the hardness have something to do with the text that you started with, Love’s Labours Lost?
Piñeiro: Well, because I think it’s more complicated, the plot, the structure. In a good way! In Viola, there was something working there that had to be a little bit loose, not super tight. With Princess—this is the Lubitsch in the films. I decided to do a film that would be super tight. There are side chapters in the structure, and one is chained to the other one, like a round. In order to make that, you need the rhythm to go pretty fast, changing from one chapter to the other one. So the thing starts, and it doesn’t stop until the end. It has moments of slowing down, but the modulation of the film demands that someone is there, watching. And they talk very fast, they talk a lot.
Rail: It helps to be familiar with Love’s Labours Lost a little bit. But even then you become confused because there’s other Shakespeare texts there, the women are playing the men’s roles—there’s all these disorientations.
Piñeiro: Those are the things that I say about the decisions that I make in order to avoid certain conventionality, to free these things by putting things another way. Like, not to be chained by Shakespeare, but to do something different, so it can be free as it should be. And maybe we change the women doing the men, and this and that, or doing it on the radio—it would free Shakespeare, or the way Shakespeare can be treated better in cinema.
Rail: I think the closest theatrical correlative to your movies isn’t the kind of traditional drama that we were talking about but the kind of experimental theater that uses different texts and visual media in a kind of collage—something like The Wooster Group.
Piñeiro: Yeah, they include cinema without being cinematic. It’s not just cinema; they are using a body, or using a ball, or using some rubber sculptures. There’s a democracy there in a way. They use that as a freeing thing, it’s not to say “oh, theater is more important, so I’ll do this, and I have theater actors doing my Shakespeare.” I don’t know, maybe if you see it the other way, especially if you learn who some Shakespeare actors were back then, you can understand there was much more freedom than what the Victorian era brought. There’s something in the 18th and 19th century that produces an idea of how cinema would take Shakespeare so there are these Shakespeare adaptations that maybe are not that interesting.
Rail: I think sometimes people imagine the films are going to be an interpretation of Shakespeare, something that actually approximates the plays. This isn’t you directing Shakespeare, and I think some people find that disappointing. But for people who know the plays, there are these great little echoes: the year of mourning, the dance.
Piñeiro: That’s the accomplice dialogue! That’s what I’m aiming for, that you have prepared the film. And because the film is better than myself, the film knows better than me.
Rail: The film is smarter than you?
Piñeiro: Yeah, the films are smarter than the people that made them. It’s not only that, but it’s only you who are watching, and I also think the audience is smart. So that you will be able to group things into dialogue, and to do this road, you know? You produce your own road. It’s not like a Dadaist game, either. It’s not like you can do whatever with a film, no, it’s not like a choose your own adventure book. But at the same time it leaves you some spaces to put your own emotions, in a way, or your own ideas, or your own recollections. All the words that I choose are the words that really hit me. You won’t have the feeling that the actual play produces, because for instance I really like the ending of Love’s Labours Lost but it’s so dark, it’s like a hit in the face. It’s a very light play, but in the end it’s pretty dark, because her becoming queen means that her father is dead.
Rail: It’s the only comedy that doesn’t end with a marriage, right?
Piñeiro: Yeah, they put it off. It’s amazing to me.
Rail: And there’s some question as to whether or not it’s actually going to happen. There’s no guarantee.
Piñeiro: It seems that it’s not going to happen. Because she isn’t very nice—the princess is not very nice.
Rail: Talk a little bit about the preponderance of games in these movies. They almost feel, especially in They All Lie, like the characters are speaking in a private code when they’re playing a game. Same with Rosalinda, at the end. But there’s always a scene where people start playing something.
Piñeiro: I think that games give—when you play a game, you’re potentiating the possibilities of something happening that you are not controlling. It’s like a dialogue, but potentiated, because people can say one thing first or make a little mistake and keep on, and something can happen that is real and strikes the plan, and can affect it and go some other way. But not that much, because the script was written, the actors rehearse.
But games—it’s like, with a dialogue you are one way, you wrote it and it goes one way. With a game, there’s a set of rules, and a set of relationships—there are so many relationships that it’s a net, and that net can have many shapes, because you put the thing in motion. I’m not planning the game exactly, right? For instance, for Rosalinda, they were playing the game, and the only thing I was doing was interrupting to change the camera angle. I’m keeping the truths of the game in motion, with some intervention of course, because it’s cinema—it’s not life. Cinema is intervention. But surfing with it. Having games available to me, makes it possible to have an equilibrium between the reality of the shooting and my proposal of the perspective that I want to shoot in. While, for instance, if you’re doing a dialogue, you can shoot like this, like that, but you know what will happen. The games somehow loosen some things which allow me to make this other air—the games make it possible for me to bring in that air.
Rail: They make everyone accomplices.
Piñeiro: Yeah, and then it’s that. It’s this bond, this bonding, this sense of group. It’s this idea of hazard, how to give hazard and control, and to surf. I like that idea of—I’ve never surfed, but I have the idea that filmmaking may have something to do with surfing. There’s something concrete and real, but then a technique and a machinery, a gadget, and a body and muscle that know how to deal with things, but then you never know exactly, because the wave will come as you didn’t expect it. The same thing can happen with an actor’s mood, with a location, with the clouds, with nature. If you’re shooting here you may not—one should have a broadened understanding of what nature is, not only minerals and animals and plants, but the nature of us behaving. You have to model that balance, make a balance of that. Because there will be that! A concrete document of that population.
Rail: Have you given any thought to what you’re going to try in the next film that you haven’t done in any of the others?
Piñeiro: Yeah: shut up!
Piñeiro: A little bit. Yeah. Try to work with silence. I won’t do a silent film, or a film that is based in silence. Of course, there’s something in the word and talking that I like, but I think that as there are words there’s also silence and maybe I can pay a little bit more attention to that. Same thing with spaces. I’m focusing too much on bodies. I’m fine with that, but maybe it’s interesting for me to question the other things that are left a bit behind.
The Princess of France premieres at the New York Film Festival on October 5th. At Anthology Film Archives from October 15 through 26, Piñeiro will guest-curate a survey of past and present Argentine cinema entitled, “Matías Piñeiro Selects: Bridges Over Argentinian Cinema.”
PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.