Matías Piñeiro’s Midsummer Dream


Summer has finally arrived, but before you queue up for Shakespeare in the Park, you may want to duck into a cool cinema at nearby Lincoln Center and catch the films of rising talent Matías Piñeiro, whose wonderfully idiosyncratic take on the Bard’s comedies offer as many surprises as pleasures. At barely 31 and with four films under his belt, this young Argentinian filmmaker is quickly establishing himself as one of international cinema’s most unique new voices.

His latest is Viola, a sly and sensual reworking of Twelfth Night, set amongst a group of attractive 20something actors and lovers in contemporary Buenos Aires. The film follows two Violas—an actress playing the part in a theatrical production of the play and a young woman who delivers DVDs on her bicycle—and their intersection. The narrative of the play and the narrative of the film overlap and begin to resonate in unexpected ways, while Piñeiro’s fluid camera work captures the romantic reverie embodied by his exceptional cast.

Viola, which played both at the Toronto Film Festival and at New Directors/New Films, follows the director’s acclaimed 2010 film Rosalinda, another playful reimagining named for a female character at the center of a Shakespearean comedy. Set in the pastoral environs of the El Tigre delta north of Buenos Aires, the film follows a group of young actors rehearsing As You Like It and engaging in a series of boat rides, dalliances, and games (both literal and romantic). 

Piñeiro likens his films to Calder mobiles in their careful construction, and his attention to small details is evident in every shot. Notice how he transforms quotidian noises (a cell phone or a door buzzer) into gently resonant narrative devices, or how the films are structured as a series of loops and circles. And while Viola and Rosalinda are very much about language, Piñeiro is adept at exploiting the slippage between text and image to create a mysterious atmosphere full of possibility.

In person, Piñeiro is warm, erudite, and very funny. He gives the impression that his films are a natural extension of his personality—and given that they all emerge out of close friendships and genial collaboration, they very much are. We recently sat down at his East Village apartment to talk about the origins of his fascination with Shakespeare, why he loves Preston Sturges, and the most surprising thing about living in the U.S.

PAUL DALLAS: Let’s start with how you got interested in Shakespeare. It’s not the first thing most young independent filmmakers want to take on.

MATÍAS PIÑEIRO: It came about because of the actresses. All of the actors in my movies are friends, people from film school or who work in theater in Buenos Aires. I’ve been working with [them] for all my films. I remember I was writing my second film, and I was reading a Mexican writer, Mario Bellatin. The structure of the film was a bit complicated, so I thought I should read something with a very clear, transparent structure, and so I read Shakespeare for this narrative interest. Suddenly, I started reading all of his plays and I got very attached to his comedies. In As You Like It, I found the character of Rosalind, and I became entangled and began reading Harold Bloom as well. I tend to do chatty films, and the idea of working with theater was attractive. I thought Rosalind could be very interesting for [actress Maria Villar]. The Jeonju Film Festival [in Korea] gave me some money to make a short feature-length film, so I said “Ok, let’s do it.” That’s how it started.

When I finished Rosalinda, I realized that she was not the only character that I liked and not the only character that could use to build a relationship with the actresses I knew. Buenos Aires University invited me to be part of a series called “Opera Prima,” where artists who have not done theater before are asked to create a theater project. I started doing a play. It’s the one that [is being rehearsed] in Viola. In fact, in the film, you are seeing the play being performed. It was a great experience doing the play. Suddenly, I had to come to New York to live, and so I thought, “Let’s shoot something before I leave this country,” and so we shot Viola in 10 days. So, it’s film-theater-film. First is my approach to the text, and then it’s my relationship with the actresses.

DALLAS: But the play did not become the screenplay for Viola, correct?

PIÑEIRO: The film and the theater are independent, but I make them have a dialogue. The play is called pasticcio, which is a patchwork of many plays, developed as if it were a single piece. I took one act from each play—Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It. I took one scene, the “sentimental line” from Acts One­, Two, Three, Four, and Five, and I mixed them together with four actresses doing all of the characters. But in order to follow each path, I decided to have one name for each [actress], so it was Bassanio, Olivia, Silvio, and—I don’t remember the last two! It’s classical and so well structured—there’s a beginning, a conflict where characters are put to a test, and then there’s an ending, a resolution. It’s also like a Frankenstein, but I tried for the scars not to show. I tried to do plastic surgery to hide them. [laughs] In Viola, you see just the first part of this play.

DALLAS: Viola starts Augustina Muñoz playing Shakespeare’s “Viola.” You then introduce the “real” Viola (Maria Villar). How did you develop the film’s structure?

PIÑEIRO: The scene from the play is a scene of seduction. For the film, I decided that I should develop a plot that is “under” the plot of the play. I had this idea that [the actresses] may or may not be trying to seduce each other for real, and to explore how this energy can be confused between the characters of the play and the characters of the film. I tried to fuse those two levels. I worked this idea of repetition through scenes of rehearsal. In Rosalinda, there is no repetition, which is awkward, but I like it. In Viola, I thought, “Let’s use repetition,” and that’s how the loop [structure] developed. I wanted the film to be divided into two parts. The first part is the rehearsal and the backstage scene. The second part involves someone who has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Rosalinda is set in the country, but for Viola, I wanted something that would take us back to the city. I got this idea of the bicycle, to allow us to move through the city. I always like to know the job of my character, and in this case I made Viola a messenger. The two parts of the film overlap in time, and so the connection begins with a flashback. It’s obvious that the two are going to meet, so I had to have a trick!

DALLAS: The actresses possess such captivating faces, and the intimacy you capture in their performances reminds me of Almodóvar.

PIÑEIRO: Yes, the film is very much about their faces. It’s true that they are all very different. Maybe it has to do with us having found each other, me to them and them to me, and being comfortable working together, so [on screen] you see people who enjoy what they do with confidence and trust. They inspire me to want to come up with fun things to do. With Rosalinda, I thought, “This would be fun to see Maria do.” So, there’s an enjoyment that brightens up the faces. And Fernando, the director of photography, is very good and loves the actresses, and so there’s something in that relationship, too. It has to do with how we live [in Buenos Aires] and how we work. I think it has to do with trust. The films are not very realistic, this is the world of Shakespeare, and it’s a little bit of a bubble, and I think they are comfortable. Maybe this trust and friendship and strong bonds of energy are similar to [what happens with] Almodóvar and his actresses. It’s the first time I think about it.

DALLAS: Most of your actors are trained in the theater?

PIÑEIRO: Yes, they are from a new school of theater, you could say, that started about two decades ago in Buenos Aires. This new school moved away from the classical and from naturalism. It has lines of experimentation and mixes between many arts and has really changed the theater. If you were an actor in the ’80s, you would have gone to the conservatory and it was more academic. I’m sure there was an avant-garde then, too. But the actors I work with studied with many teachers, and they also write and do other things. They don’t get professionalized in the same way as they do here, or need to go do TV to move forward in their acting careers. Some work in TV, of course, but in general it’s a much more mixed scene, and there’s more movement.

DALLAS: Tell me about how you work with the actors.

PIÑEIRO: I write something specifically for the actors that can be a little bit tricky. I share it with them, we change it together, and then we shoot. That’s it. There’s not much magic. But they’re very good. And they are very risky. In Viola during the powder room scene, Augustina finishes her dialogue with a rhyme. She’s talking normally, and then suddenly her last line—where she’s describing what she’s going to do in the next scene—is all in rhyme! It’s not Shakespeare; it’s text that I wrote, and it’s [deliberately] dorky. I don’t know if “dorky” is what I think it is. Foolish. Funny. The rhyme is horrible—all the meters are different! But she’s fearless, and she was like, “Let’s do this!”

I did the English translations for the subtitles myself. I was working on the scene in Viola with the three women in the car. When we were shooting the scene, it had gotten carried away, and I assumed they had improvised a bit. But when I was doing the translation, I had the script next to me, and suddenly I see that they said all the lines, exactly as they were! There was nothing improvised! They are just excellent actors.

DALLAS: In Viola, the boundary between the real and the imagined is often a little fuzzy.

PIÑEIRO: I like how film can be ambiguous, how one shot can mean many things at the same time, or at least a couple of things at the same time. For instance, dreams or daydreams give me a field to work these possibilities, and to consider possibilities that don’t correspond to a “realistic” universe. In the car scene, it’s possible that the two friends are harassing Viola suddenly and tell her that she can replace them in the play. I enjoy the strangeness that results when characters don’t respond the way they’re “supposed” to according to the confines of realism. This search for ambiguity, and for different ways of narrating these possibilities through dreams, alternatives, and variations, are part of the rhythm I enjoy.

DALLAS: What other artists or filmmakers do this for you?

PIÑEIRO: Well, Buñuel or Preston Sturges, for instance. I love all of [Sturges’ films], but I really like The Palm Beach Story (1942). It has a very strange beginning. The opening gives you a lot of information that you can’t entirely digest, and it gives away the end of the film, a little bit. I like how the movie goes faster than it should. You can’t get everything. The idea is he doesn’t care so much about what you’re getting but about how you’re getting it. It’s more about the rhythm. And then of course I love Sullivan’s Travels (1941). You have this idea that you’re watching something and you think it’s the film but it’s the film of the film. It’s a film inside a film. It’s not entirely the same in Viola, but it’s similar. In Spanish, we call it caja chinas, or I think you say Chinese boxes. I like those structures. The idea is that what you’re seeing can be many things at the same time. The fight on the train in Sullivan’s Travels is like that: it’s suddenly a film of a fight on a train. Things are doubled. It’s this idea of ambiguity again. Also, these films begin in your face—there’s no nice opening shot of a mountain, and then introduction of character one and two. And we’re talking about films from the ’40s! It’s incredible.

With Eric Rohmer, you have the idea of realistic dreams. In Viola, the dream sequence is realistic—it’s not Tim Burtonesque. It seems as if it’s natural. Sometimes I dream very strange things, but many, many times I dream things that are very normal, very tangible. I remember dreaming once that tomorrow I have a job interview. All day, I was dreaming that. There was nothing very strange. It was simple but detailed. I remember thinking: you can make narratives with this material.

DALLAS: Are there film adaptations of Shakespeare that have inspired you?

PIÑEIRO: I have learned from many of them. When I started developing my interest in Shakespeare, for sure the first ones were the Orson Welles films, especially Chimes at Midnight (1966), which I really like. First I saw Welles doing Falstaff, and then I read Falstaff. It took me some time to get into the Laurence Olivier films, but when I finally did, I found that Henry V (1944) is the best one of them all. It’s my favorite of all the Shakespeare adaptations, and it’s one of the first ones. Then, going back to Henry IV and this Falstaff thing, I really love Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). I also really love the Paul Mazursky’s The Tempest (1983) and the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971).

DALLAS: You’re also a big fan of American cinema of the ’30s and ’40s.

PIÑEIRO: Yes, I like all the American comedies. All of Katharine Hepburn’s acting is based on Shakespeare. For instance, if you see George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), it’s basically As You Like It. It’s a very strange film, but many ideas are taken from the text. I think my films are not adaptations. There’s this whole line of films that are not adaptations, but are inspired by Shakespeare. This is true of To Be or Not to Be (1942), which is my favorite film. It’s Merchant of Venice as well as Hamlet. There’s also Morning Glory by George Sherman, a little studio film from the ’30s. It’s one of the first Katharine Hepburn films, and she won an Oscar for it. She plays a young, naïve actress who comes to New York to make it on Broadway. She’s very ambitious but she’s also nerdy, so it’s very funny. There’s one scene where she goes to a big society party. She never drinks but has one sip and is absolutely tipsy and says to people, “You want to know about acting?” and suddenly does two Shakespeare monologues. She does the most clichéd ones—the monologue from Hamlet and one from Juliet—and she’s amazing. The film just sort of stops to watch her act. It’s like a little bubble inside this small studio film. The two scenes of Katharine Hepburn doing Shakespeare are like a documentary.

DALLAS: Tell me about your next project.

PIÑEIRO: For my new film, I want to work with a male character. I’ve done Twelfth Night, I’ve done As You Like It, and now I’m going to do Love’s Labour’s Lost. It will be set on the radio, and it’s called The Princess of France because I’m following all the female characters. We shoot in August, and I am still writing it now. Julián Larquier Tellarini, who was in my second film They All Lie, will play the main character. The five chapters are told from the points of view of the different women, so it’s not much about him, even though he’s always in the scenes. The last chapter with the big last scene takes place in a radio studio as they perform the play.

DALLAS: Will this be your last Shakespeare film?

PIÑEIRO: No, there’s another one I want to make. It’s a bigger film, a period piece that I want to shoot in Le Tigre, where we shot Rosalinda. It’s called Isabella, after the character from Measure for Measure. It’s a darker film. This film will not be that funny. [laughs] There are beheadings, and that type of thing. Isabella is a novice, and her brother is in prison because of a mischievous vice duke. The vice duke is attracted to the novice and offers her a sexual encounter in exchange for the release her brother. She is scandalized because she’s a novice! She goes to the brother in prison and tells him, and suddenly he says, “Well, maybe you could.” And she says, “Oh no, you will die!” It’s a comedy, but the only comedic aspect is that the interim duke is the one manipulating the plot, while the real duke is watching from the sidelines.

The film is also about the translation of this play in the 19th century through an Argentinian intellectual named Domingo Faustino Sarmiento [who later became President of the Republic of Argentina]. He’s like our Franklin mixed with Lincoln. So it’s a film on him during that period, because he’s a pioneer. I started to think about him translating Shakespeare, because he was trying to bring European ideas to the country.

DALLAS: Your films tend to mix fiction and nonfiction elements. I wondered what you think about America’s fixation with reality TV?

PIÑEIRO: Well, during our first year in the U.S., [my partner and I] decided to have cable TV. It talks about society, so we really wanted to see it in an anthropological way. Oh my God! We saw so many reality shows and serial killer shows! In Argentina, you have reality shows, but you don’t have channels devoted to them! We have two big shows, but here there are so many. When it’s not [a show about] making cupcakes, it’s one about transvestites, or refurnishing your home. I probably watched RuPaul Academy the most. It’s weirder than Drag Race, because it’s actual women who participate. The drag queens show these women how to be bigger and better. In the end, there’s a runway competition and the women’s families are there to watch!

DALLAS: You’ve become a New Yorker in the last year. What was the most surprising thing to you about the U.S. when you first moved here?

PIÑEIRO: When you see [American] films from abroad, it’s like you’re buying a whole package of an image of the world—these little porches on New England houses, or the delis selling lots of different beer. You think they only exist in the movies, that they are all “film objects.” Suddenly, you’re in America and all the things that you’ve seen all your life—you realize they are not just Hollywood sets! You see that the beer that the actors are holding is not a prop; it’s a beer that you can actually drink here. Maybe Budweiser is internationally known, but something like Bud Light! It’s this idea of the realistic connection between films and life here. It was so surprising to me.