NYFF Diary #1: The Princess of France
Repetition has always been a key structural device in the work of the young, prodigiously gifted Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro, and The Princess of France, the third of the director’s beguiling, waltz-like romances to take its inspiration from a Shakespeare play, is no exception. Piñeiro has a habit of staging certain moments, scenes, and snatches of dialogue in multiple variations, but the duplicate passages that result from this practice are never exact copies. Instead, the logic of Piñeiro’s movies can be closer to that of a theatrical rehearsal—his previous feature, Viola (12), was peppered with scenes of young actors practicing scenes from Twelfth Night—or, in the case of The Princess of France, a recording session for radio. In each case, the film becomes an environment fitted out for envisioning alternate possibilities, a space in which alternate routes can be tested out, then followed back to their source for other routes to be tried in turn.
Midway through the new film, which revolves around a radio production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a key male character recites a handful of lines from the play into a studio mic. (In one of Piñeiro’s characteristic gender reversals, he’s playing the play’s heroine, the princess of the movie’s title.) He runs through the passage about half a dozen times, and while his delivery never strays far from the quicksilver, highly enunciated rhythm with which all of the film’s characters speak, each recurrence brings with it small shifts in inflection and variations in tone. The lines in question come from a speech late in the play’s fifth act. What they give is a promise—“[I will] shut / my woeful self up in a mourning house / raining the tears of lamentation / for the remembrance of my father’s death”—that turns out to be one component of a conditional. “If this thou do deny,” the speech concludes, “let our hands part, neither entitled to the other’s heart.”
The command to which that ambiguous “this” refers is, as it happens, for the princess’s suitor to shut himself up as well. Piñeiro never films the first three-quarters of her speech, in which she commands the man to “go with speed to some forlorn and naked hermitage / remote from all the pleasures of the world,” and “there stay” as proof that “this austere insociable life / [will] change not your offer made in heat of blood.” It’s clear from what we do hear, however, that what’s being demanded of the listener is proof of his fidelity—proof that his devotion will outlast the “heat of blood”—and that the need for such proof is present for both the princess and her addressee (though only she, it seems, is wise to the need to admit it).
The need for proof of commitment, and the importance of acknowledging that need, is also what’s at stake throughout Piñeiro’s deft, mischievous film, often in the form of its inverse: the fear of receiving proof of a partner’s infidelity, or having proof of one’s own exposed. It’s by glimpsing a suspicious inscription in her copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost that Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini)—the actor we see reciting the Princess’s lines—discovers that his girlfriend Paula (Agustina Muñoz) took up with another man during his year abroad. As payback, he plans to give her proof of his own infidelity in the form of an incriminating note addressed to him from Ana (María Villar), an on-again, off-again lover with whom he’s recently had a one-night stand. Complicating the situation further are Carla (Elisa Carricajo), a friend of a friend whom he casually, almost incidentally plans to seduce, and Natalia (Romina Paula), an ex of Victor’s who re-enters his life asking for a role in the play. (In a representative move on Piñeiro’s part, the scene of her petition is played out three times in a row, each variation leading to a radically different outcome.)
If Victor stands at the center of the movie—the first male character in any Piñeiro film to do so—it’s as a somewhat vaguely defined sexual presence, extending amoeboid gestures of desire wherever he detects the slightest glimmer of interest. Compared to the movie’s prodigious women, he has few clearly defined commitments, fewer moral standards, and extremely little self-discipline; much of the movie’s pleasure is in watching the way the women dance carefully into and away from his advances, protecting themselves, pursuing their projects, watching their steps. Piñeiro’s graceful, mobile visual style, developed in close collaboration with his longtime cinematographer Fernando Lockett, has always come off, to my eyes, as a kind of analogue for the way his characters circle around one another, but his camera has never been so active a dance partner with its subjects as it is in The Princess of France, dipping, weaving, and maneuvering between them in breathtakingly choreographed extended takes.
For any two characters caught up in this roundelay, committing exclusively to each other would mean quitting the dance. Many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies suggest the difficulty of carrying out and sustaining such a withdrawal; if the lovers do, in the end, make promises of lasting fidelity, it is often only under heavy coercion (All’s Well That Ends Well) or within the context of a serious doubt over the reliability of their own faculties (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). When we suspect that they might have a chance of success together, it’s often because they have learned to turn cohabitation into its own kind of game, accompanied by its own risks, deceptions, sidesteps, victories, and defeats. To some extent, they succeed by telling themselves that a relationship isn’t the sort of thing that allows for surefire proof of fidelity—only proof of betrayal. Each partner in a stable partnership, they decide, always has the option of rejoining the dance, an option both parties have to deny, or at least defer, day by day.
It might be objected that these sorts of questions are outside the purview of a movie like The Princess of France, if only because Piñeiro’s willingness to double back and restage key scenes deprives the film of a sense of risk—of things being irreparably, decisively lost. The movie ends with a breakup recounted in voiceover after the fact. At the end of the story, Victor, our narrator, pauses. “I’d have preferred [that day] went differently,” he confesses. “Like this.” In one last redoubling, the scene begins again; this time, it ends with a gesture of tender reconciliation.
It wouldn’t be quite right, however, to call this another rehearsal. If The Princess of France begins on the model of a tryout or a recording session, it gradually develops a sense of loss, and even, in its own delicate, exquisite way, a feeling for tragedy. If anything, the implication of the movie’s ending is that Victor is not, no matter what he might think, justified in conducting himself as if life were the rehearsal of a play. Without knowing it, he is making choices that cannot be undone; if his life is a play, he’s already an act or two into its only performance, and the people with whom he’s performing can’t be expected to give him the same freedom of revision that he wants, or needs, to enjoy.
Indeed, some of the movie’s most thrilling moments—the extended, single-take reading from Love’s Labour’s Lost that ushers in the film’s third act; the rapid-fire montage of Victor and Ana’s many make-out sessions that introduces their relationship; the bravura opening shot of a Buenos Aires soccer match from which players of one team keep darting out of the frame, only to reappear dressed in the colors of the other side—have the pulse of a high-wire live performance, incapable of revision or doubling back. That The Princess of France manages to balance this sense of risk with a genuine openness to alternate possibilities and a serene lightness of touch is perhaps another way of saying that a high-stakes, one-shot game is, in the end, still a game—or, alternatively, that much can be accomplished during a single live performance, and a lot of ground covered during a single dance.
The Princess of France screens October 5 and 6 in the New York Film Festival.