Hermia & Helena is a meandering, but rewarding, diasporic wander through the lives of two female friends, Carmen (María Villar) and Camila (Agustina Muñoz), as they spend time between Buenos Aires, their home, and New York, where they have both separately partaken in a literary fellowship. Carmen is soon to leave the Big Apple, with Camila set to take her place, to take time working on her translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: hence the title.
The film plays very loose, with the director, Matías Piñeiro, sending his camera freely gliding between the two locations, while never fearing to pause for minutes on end as static conversations take place. The film comes across, at times, as being improvised. Both conversational poles – rat-a-tat-tat Spanish language get-togethers between friends, on the one hand, and awkward encounters between strangers, on the other – have a breezy, and well performed, naturalism to them and avoid conventional Hollywood signposting.
This is very much a case of reciprocal satisfaction and one must commit to start reaping the rewards. Piñeiro rarely lays it out for the viewer, and instead leaves us to work things out on our own. I feel I went with the film, in that regard, though I may have got more from it had I been more familiar “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. There was a recurring theme of gifts that I am yet to get my head around, and Shakespeare may hold some clues to that end.
There are echoes of Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philp) in the film’s awkward jazzy wanderings. Scott Joplin accompanies many of the film’s scenes and the New York-ness is captured in the busy sound design, which first plays outs in a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation. Piñeiro and his cinematographer, Fernando Lockett, place the camera far above their subject, steadily following them across the park from a nearby rooftop. Interestingly, the camera is just as confident to lead as it is to follow, and Piñeiro guides our eye very naturally when the drama requires it.
It’s an interesting blend of styles, and Piñeiro’s filmic references develop into full-blown formal experimentation. He superimposes images and annotated text from Camila’s notepad over scenes and has the play’s dialogue whispered in both Shakespeare’s English and Camila’s Spanish. The superimpositions become a really novel way of capturing the central duo’s thoughts and dreams. We even leave the main film for a couple of minutes as we watch a short directed by one of the film’s many interesting, and often unexplained, peripheral characters.
Despite the film’s New York-y feel, Piñeiro also never loses sight of his Argentinian pedigree. He captures a wonderful sense of people misplaced. In fact, he goes out of his way to misplace his audience as well. As the drama progresses, he begins to toy with the timeline, sending us back and forth across a busy 12-month period. It becomes somewhat difficult to keep track, to the point that I became unsure of which friend was which. But, that confusion seems intentional: we only see the final moments of Carmen’s time in NYC, but we get the feeling that Camila isn’t the only one who had a strange time there.
Hermia & Helena is an interesting beast. Piñeiro clearly has little time for conventional Hollywood filmmaking technique, and instead blends North American auteurship with European avant-garde-ism and his own blend of South American je ne sais quoi (or should I say no sé qué). While it doesn’t entirely hit the mark and rarely makes for the easiest of viewing experiences (even in a mere 87-minute portion), Piñeiro expresses himself with such fluid confidence that this seemingly unwieldy potion casts an intriguing spell.