The English word “rehearsal” doesn’t have the same ambivalent connotations as the French répétition. In English, you hone a dramatic text to work toward a definitive performance, while the French stresses the reiteration rather than its eventual goal. That dimension of répétition is always evident in those films of Jacques Rivette (among them Out 1, Gang of Four, Va Savoir) that center on rehearsals for a play: Rivette is less interested in the single finished performance than in theater as a constant process of transformation and adjustment. In his films, plays worked over in rehearsal (Aeschylus, Pirandello, Marivaux et al) always appear to be repetitions at once of themselves, practiced endlessly, and of the dramas that affect the real lives of the actors, while the films’ own plots one way or another reproduce the plays that they contain. There is no original primordial drama in this Möbius-strip scheme of things, and rarely an end point: Rivette is not really one for the cathartic closure of the big opening night.

A very Rivettian logic applies to the relation between life and play text in the films of Argentinian writer-director Matías Piñeiro. It’s been pointed out to me that the usual Spanish word for “rehearsal” is actually ensayo—which also means “test” or “experiment”—rather than repetición. No matter—the theme of repetition is taken to dizzying extremes in Piñeiro’s three Shakespearean films, which obsessively and mischievously rework the topic of plays merging with real-world drama. The repetitive element is heightened by the fact that Piñeiro works consistently with a repertory company of actors, who not only play thespians swapping roles on stage—as if permanently understudying for each other—but whose real-life roles at times appear to be interchangeable. Needless to say, the very idea of “real life” is moot in Piñeiro’s work; we can’t always be certain that what we see happening on the streets of Buenos Aires isn’t simply an overspill from some play or another. Few film directors have followed the proposition “All the world’s a stage” to such vertiginous extremes.

Piñeiro has so far made three Shakespeare-inspired films, with a fourth, the U.S.-set Hermia & Helena, in the pipeline. The first is the 43-minute Rosalinda (11), in which a group of actors retreat to a stretch of riverside to prepare a production of As You Like It. They start speaking their lines creakily, manifestly rehearsing, but the divide between actors and characters soon dissolves and these young people seem at be at once in the play and in present-day Argentina; early on, a worker who happens to be busy up a tree is pressed into service as a Shakespearean forester, and slips into the part without a visible transition. The more complex 65-minute Viola (12) is about a production of Twelfth Night that similarly leaks into the real, taking in more characters, more acute temporal dislocation, and repetitive rehearsal pushed to the extreme. One long sequence revolves around one actress testing another’s emotional responses, in the sort of amorous trial of character that’s so often a Shakespeare plot device: here, a single passage of text is looped over and over, as if constantly spiraling in on its actors, culminating in real-world seduction of one actress by the other.

Piñeiro ups the ante somewhat in the similarly concise (67 minutes) yet even more fragmented The Princess of France, adding art history to the mix of subtexts. The painting that plays such a significant part is Nymphs and Satyr (1873) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a massively successful artist in his day, but whose work is generally regarded now as the last word in academic kitsch, effectively de luxe soft porn; gazing at his work in a gallery, one of Piñeiro’s characters points out that it used to be very popular in American brothels. The painting’s theme of nymphs playfully tormenting a satyr is duplicated in Piñeiro’s story about a young man, Victor (Julian Larquier Tellarini), shuttling pinball-style between various women—but it’s a while till we get to anything so stable as a story. First comes an extraordinary extended opening. Over a black screen, an Italian radio announcer introduces the first movement of Schumann’s First Symphony, dedicating to a certain Lorena; as the music plays, we see her (Laura Paredes) on a rooftop at night, putting on gloves for a football match. Her friends call her to join them, and the camera pans down to the playing field below, a pool of light in the dark cityscape. The music doesn’t last anything like the 10 minutes 28 seconds promised by the announcer, but as the players finish their game and run off, the music cuts out, as does this extended shot—and we cut to Lorena dashing into a nearby theater, where she’s told that the rehearsal in progress has got to the fourth act. Then, just when the film seems to be getting to grips with Lorena’s amorous intrigues, a female voiceover (but whose?) starts telling us about a woman named Natalia (Romina Paula), who “saw everything from backstage…”

We’re confused—not least because much of this action is taking place in the darkness of the theater. In fact, Piñeiro has told us everything we need to know right from the start, plastering up a detailed dramatis personae in the opening credits: “Victor, a player . . . Paula, the girlfriend . . . Natalia, the ex-girlfriend…” Still, the viewer can’t be expected to easily remember any of this, or to put names to faces. That’s just the start of how elusive things get. Initially, the film’s characters, two men and six women, are involved in a stage production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then we’re told that Victor goes away for a year—a period that’s over in a flash, after which he announces that he’s planning a series of six or seven different Shakespeare plays for radio. By now, everything is up for grabs and open to change. Victor starts an affair with Ana (Maria Villar), who’s pregnant (but by whom?), but he’s also possibly on the verge of one with Carla (Elisa Carricajo), with whom he once briefly danced to “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” a moment invoked economically by having a disc of light revolving round a dark room while characters gyrate. Now Natalia, who had apparently disappeared, is back in town, and trying to earn money from tutoring in math; she’s seen out with Ana, posting ads for her services, then heads off to a sports club where she hopes to find Victor. At this point, Piñeiro gives us the same two scenes again but with variants: Natalia is out posting ads with Lorena, and this time does find Victor; then we get an alternative take, with Natalia and another woman, and Victor offering Natalia a role in the radio project. Neither of these versions is presented as the definitive one: they’re all rehearsals for, or “repetitions” of, each other.

Just how provisional everything is here is shown by a radio studio sequence, in which a hybrid Shakespearean passage based on the prologue to Henry V is read out to two different pieces of live music in turn, one contemplatively jazzy, the other more forceful and driving—turning the words into, effectively, two very different texts (a lovely demonstration of the economy of cinema’s own resources for creating radically different inflections). Meanwhile, the chain of exchanged roles is matched by the exchange of various objects from hand to hand—a paperback copy of Shakespeare inscribed with love from one character to another, Natalia’s tuition ads (used as sound effects props and ripped by with gusto by one of her rivals), and a brush-off note to Victor from Ana, written on the back of (what else?) a Bouguereau postcard.

Let’s not forget the other key object of exchange—the kiss. In Piñeiro’s Shakespeare films, kisses are not “stolen,” as the idiom has it, so much as frantically exchanged like batons in a relay, whisked from one character to another, punctuating the film rhythmically; one of the film’s most flamboyant flourishes is a brief, quickfire montage of kisses between Victor and Ana in a variety of locations, before she writes her farewell note. Critic Quintín has referred to the mixing of realms and activities in Piñeiro’s stories as a “symbolic orgy,” but given the painterly references in this film and the formalized love games of the Shakespeare plays, what comes to mind is less an orgy than a fête galante, the courtly, pastoral, festive amorous ritual celebrated by Watteau’s paintings.

In Piñeiro’s films, love is a wild whirl, but also an elegant dance of changing partners. The erotic fascination underlying all this is constantly visible in the way that Piñeiro and DP Fernando Lockett film faces, often in long gliding takes that move seamlessly from wide shot to close-up—see the radio studio scenes in The Princess of France and the extended scene in Viola in which the camera hunkers down between three characters talking in a car at very close quarters. Piñeiro delights just as much in the erotics of the voice: few directors take so much tangible pleasure in the sheer sound of voices speaking, even (especially) if they’re simply repeating the same words over and over. And the relaxed exuberance of his young cast is such that their voices are equally natural, equally vivid whether they’re speaking everyday demotic or translated Shakespeare.

As for the Princess in all this, she’s a character in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but it’s for us to work out who among these characters she might be. In the studio, actor Guillermo (Pablo Sigal) recites a version of the prologue from Henry V, urging theatergoers to complete the play with their own imaginations—“For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings”—but interpolates the line, “Convert me into a princess.” Guillermo might be the Princess here—yet so might be any of the film’s characters, and certainly they all, one by one, become the focus of its democratic shifting attention. But perhaps it’s truer to say that imagination itself is the Princess here—the mistress of ceremonies in a sometimes perplexing, but always elegant dramatic dance.