Interview: Matías Piñeiro
Matías Piñeiro’s ongoing series of idiosyncratic Shakespeare adaptations continues with The Princess of France, one of the shortest yet most slippery and complex features in the main slate of this year’s New York Film Festival. No one working in cinema today makes films quite like Piñeiro’s, which, despite their compact run-times and modest production values, abound with social and sexual intrigues, formal gambits, narrative contortions, and spellbindingly interwoven dialogue. Following Viola (a New Directors/New Films 2013 selection and his first to be distributed in the U.S.), The Princess of France is both tantalizing evidence of Piñeiro’s development as a filmmaker and an engrossing example of the dramatic gamesmanship that has been manifest in each of his films to date.
For FILM COMMENT Dan Sullivan interviewed Matías Piñeiro a few weeks before the U.S. premiere of The Princess of France at the New York Film Festival on October 5 and 6.
How did you decide to place what is effectively the most elaborate shot in The Princess of France at the very beginning? Do you feel it presages events to come in the film’s plot?
I believe that one film helps the next one to be, not only economically but also compositionally. It is the idea of variations. So, I wanted to start differently, as I tend to start the action of my films rather too quickly. I decided to start this film in a more relaxed or slower way. Viola was based on certain ideas about the close-up, so I decided that I should try working in longer shot. I wanted to direct another sort of a scene. I also included a piece of music in a way I never did before. And I thought that the idea of including sports in the film would also make me think anew, to film an activity I’ve never filmed. Although I am not a football fan, I believe that everybody should be capable of seeing something of interest in what other people do, so I focused on the football game and found that there is an irregular geometry organizing it. But in order to appreciate this, you need to be far away enough, which was actually perfect for what I was looking for. Then came the idea of starting with a dream sequence, maybe a nightmare. I think this has to do with my relationship with this game. I remember the first time I got into a football field when I was 7. I had no idea how it was played, no clue about the rules. Being among all the other boys who knew exactly what they were doing while I was just standing there in the middle pretending I was “playing” with them was pretty nightmarish.
One thing that the first shot is very concerned with—as indeed all of your films seem to be—is group dynamics. You tend to render your groups with a certain opacity, and it can be a bit difficult to keep everyone straight (which I assume is deliberate). It almost feels like infiltrating a group of friends, in that you must work to figure out exactly who shares what kind of history with whom, and so on. What is it about this particular approach to portraying a group that appeals to you?
I try not to be bureaucratic when it comes to storytelling. I know there are things that it’s important to do in order to tell a story, but I can’t stop thinking about how things could be presented otherwise. When we go to a dinner, we meet many people and most of the times we don’t get everybody’s names, but that doesn’t prevent us from participating, from talking to each other or following conversations. By the end of the night, we may know some people’s names and even get some telephone numbers. If I were to try to explain everything, I would kill something more precious: the sense of rhythm, ambiguity, and confusion that I find in relationships. I trust that the spectator is more intelligent than me, and that by the end of the film the relationships are clear.
How much of the film’s expressivity do you think emerges from your script versus performance, your rehearsals, the shooting, etc.?
The expression comes from the confrontation between the script and the shooting. The script is written close to the shooting schedule. With the actors, we read the dialogues before shooting and I listen very closely. In order to make the film I want to make, it is a matter of knowing how to listen better and how to see better than what was written. The world knows better than the script. I try to surround myself with actors and crew members that I admire, because they are also composing the film and putting something of themselves into it. The script is there to evolve into a reality, a film-reality. It is a relationship of elasticity, where we play with what we think we can do and what the world reveals that we can achieve.
You’ve worked with many of the same people for many years across many films. Are you conscious of the documentary aspect that this lends to your films, like the feeling of surprise produced when a pregnant María Villar first appears in The Princess of France?
I didn’t realize this until I was to screen all my films together at CPH:PIX. I realized that my collaborators and I have been insisting so much on the films we want to make, on a continuous wave of production, that it only took a bit of time to go by to begin building a body of work we have made together. When we are making a film, we are only concerned with what we have to do at that moment. I don’t think that any of the people involved ever thought about themselves historically. I don’t think so. It was just something that happened when you grow older and keep working year after year, one film at a time. And if María was pregnant when we had to shoot this film, it was purely due to life, and film can absorb that. Life won’t stop us from doing a film. I still think that we can do many new films with Romina [Paula], Fernando [Lockett, the film’s cinematographer], and María, even if (or maybe because) we have been working together since 2005.
Visually, The Princess of France is a quite a bit darker than, say, Viola  or They All Lie… . Was this a conscious maneuver on your part?
I’m glad you mentioned this. That’s something I thought about with Fernando while preparing the film. In every film, I try to work on what I didn’t in the previous one, so as to see myself differently. The Shakespeare play in this case, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is a very bright play that gets dark in the end. I appreciate that tonal movement in the play and I thought that my film could take over from there, playing with the idea of the main character returning to the fields of love one year after the main action occurred. In the end of the play, the Princess says that the men should come back in a year’s time and Victor starts the film by coming back a year after his departure from Buenos Aires. The idea is that there should only be some resonances. The darkness of the image has to do with the tone from which the film departed.
Painting plays a large role in The Princess of France, especially Bouguereau, who is considered rather academic, almost corny. Did that somehow account for part of the appeal for you?
The inclusion of Bouguereau in the film has to do with an email that Fernando sent me after I told him the plot of the new film. We met in Buenos Aires the day before I left for New York, and the next day he sent me an email with Nymphs and Satyr as an attachment. I researched the painting online and discovered that it was at the Met, so I went to visit it the next day. I started to believe that the painting was the film’s script. It also became an inspiration for some formal devices in the film. I like the circular movement that the painting has, and I thought that it could also affect the structure of the film. Also, the idea of the nymphs bullying a satyr was an inversion of the usual gender roles, which I enjoyed and I tried to transfer to the film.
Then, I found out that in Buenos Aires there were some Bouguereaus at our National Museum. So I decided to include the museum as a location. As all of this came from Nymphs and Satyr, I thought I needed to somehow photograph the painting. So I came up with the idea of the postcard that would also be a good object to go from hand to hand, to circulate. In terms of what Bouguereau represents in art history, I found his fall in reputation interesting, his transition from being canonical in his time to a forgotten academicist now. As María says in the movie, we’ll always prefer the Impressionists, but there can still be plenty to appreciate in those others that may seem campy or ridiculous.
Your characters are constantly discussing cultural objects, generally from the 19th century if not even earlier. In reaching back to these artists and works, you effectively reach past cinema. Is part of the attraction to these things that they are pre-cinematic, or that they have nothing to do with cinema or cinephilia per se?
I think my attraction comes from the fact that these objects are considered generally non-cinematic and that I believe in quite the opposite, the impurity of cinema. That is to say, theater, literature, and painting can help me to find new ways of thinking about what cinema can be. They nurture me, but they also provide basic needs to shoot a film: objects and locations for mise en scène, dialogue, etc. There are of course many Shakespeare adaptations around… but I will never forget the faces on my friends and acquaintances when I told them I was working on Shakespeare!
Dialogue dominates your films. How do you think about filming speech as its own form of action?
Yes, words are like actions. But mainly, I think, as many do, that language is as much a part of the world as are streets, faces, and the wind. As cinema deals with all that is involved in the world, words have to do with cinema. The act of speaking produces a photogenia as well, which has to be taken into account. It’s much more a matter of thinking about how to deal with this game of sounds and images, and how we can use them to produce a new kind of fiction. Just think about the complexity of telling a lie, the density of a word and its ambiguity, the double or triple layers that have to develop in order to make the lie intelligible, and the effects that it has on the liar and the person being lied to alike.
One of the major formal ideas in The Princess of France (which you’ve explored in your work before) is repetition, as with the thrice-repeated scene with Natalia in the middle of the film, and the two versions of the ending. Do you conceive of these as alternate realities, or are they purely different iterations of the same scenario?
Again, I think it is a mixture of all of the above: it is for both narrative and abstract or metaphysical reasons. But I believe it first comes from my way of experiencing the world, in that I focus on ambiguities, on how contradictions are developed and the intermittencies of the heart can be explored. I think repetition helps me to compose a world that reveals itself to be complex and closer to the experience I have of it, where certainties are seldom acute, dreams can fuse with reality, and relativity is part of being.
Finally, why do you tend to favor such short run times? Could you see yourself making a two-hour film, perhaps as soon as with your forthcoming American film?
It’s not something that I think before shooting. Actually, it would be better for the sake of programming if I could control that better, but I still prefer not to restrain myself from cutting anything I didn’t like just in order to meet the standard length for a feature. I’d rather make a film that I like, and that I could defend. A film is an autonomous object and it must obey the laws that exist within itself, so I have to try to listen to it carefully. I must be very careful with the total length to achieve the rhythm I want. I can’t be distracted by external standards. Yet I do think that after making two films that are between 60 and 70 minutes long and one film that is about 40 minutes long, I could try to make a much longer film, just for variation’s sake. I would also like to do a much shorter film for the same reasons.