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Matías Piñeiro Interview (The Princess of France)

The Princess of France

Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro discusses his latest film, The Princess of France (2014), a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, Love’s Labour’s Lost. It follows the same methodology of his previous adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies, Viola (2012)’s take on Twelfth Night and Rosalinda (2010)’s As You Like It. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.

Let’s talk about The Princess of France… Not a period piece [referring to an earlier conversation].

Matías Piñeiro: I’m so much into the Shakespeare thing, it’s obvious, because it’s very easy – the films have the title of the female character. When I put the title, The Princess of France, which I like because it’s not again another name. I didn’t realize, what would someone think of the film if they know nothing about the film. They would see a title and think that… I don’t know… a period piece or something and it would be crazy – or a French thing. I never thought about that confusion until a couple of weeks ago.

Did someone say something?

They were expecting something different. It was okay, though. If I talk to someone and I say The Princess of France, the idea that develops in their mind is something very different from what it actually is, but it’s okay.

How did you decide on adapting Love’s Labour’s Lost?

Because it was part of a theatre play I did and in that play I mixed many plays. I did a pastiche. I already did the one from As You Like It [Rosalinda (2010)] and Twelfth Night [Viola (2012)] and I felt that the one from Love’s Labour’s Lost, the scene that I particularly like, was the most different from the others, from Viola and Rosalinda. This idea of four characters, four men performed by women. It’s very peculiar because one thinks she’s alone, one thinks she’s alone, and another thinks she’s alone spying on the other two – there’s a thing about point of view that makes the scene work. This idea that voices think they’re alone and very much focused on that, I thought it would be interesting working around that for the film. Focuses on voices and sound, an idea of points of view. I think the film does something different – it’s not that it’s mimicking that, there’s no scene where someone sees someone doing something, another one sees someone seeing someone… there’s not that, but it’s something that helped me produce my own thing. The first thing is that I really, really like that play. I was also attracted by the idea that the Princess of France is not actually inside of the scene and I liked that. To shift from the previous film, Viola and it’s all about Viola. Here the Princess of France is a little bit empty as a figure. I think there’s something of that in the film, the idea of who he is is developed by who some people think who he is. It’s all around the girls that are looking to this man. I like that change, because if I don’t do it the beginning, the films will look alike. I’m already working with the same people, working with Shakespeare texts in Buenos Aires and me – I change things a little bit, I hope so, but I’m not changing a lot. So I really need to make some decisions that will help me to make some detours from what I’ve already done.

Is that how you came up with the beginning shot of this film?

Yeah, exactly. One film always helps the next one to be produced and compose its form. I knew that Viola was very much focused on the close-up, I had ideas around that, so it was okay for me to work on that, but in this new one, I decided I should do something different. The idea of a long shot was something I’m not used to working on and I said, “Okay, let’s try it.” I will see what I can do with it and the same thing, while I was shooting a friend said I should do something with football. Provoking me a little bit, I think, because I’m not very sporty. I tried to think what would be attractive for me in football and I realized the idea of geometry, it’s interesting. The idea of geometry can only be seen if you see it from a distance, because if you’re in it you don’t see the plans. I started developing the idea of starting that way. Same thing with the music, I never use music in that way, even though it’s ambiguous whether it’s from the radio – where’s the radio? Is she listening to that radio? I’m fooling around with that, I’ve never done that. I’m always trying to choose different materials that may look similar to the previous materials, but they’re not and then I put myself into the situation. Something where I don’t know how I will be as a filmmaker while doing them. It was a challenge shooting that scene, it was different from what I’m used to. Being eight-storeys up, far from the place, it was a kind of directing that I don’t usually do. 

There’s also something about what you were saying earlier about reading or projecting, what the women are doing to Victor, that is happening in that opening shot. You’re seeing something from a distance and trying to understand it and piece it together as a viewer, how the music is relating. How did you choose the Schumann piece [the first movement of Symphony No. 1]?

I listened to Schumann a long time ago when I was much, much younger and it surprised me because it’s a very strange piece – especially the first movement. At the same time, I don’t know much about music, I have a very amateur approach to music, but I know that the symphonies are not the main work for which Schumann is known. If you think of Schumann, you think of piano, no? Or a concerto, but not much the symphonies, they were a little bit overshadowed by those works and that surprised me because that first symphony always attracted me with its pompous thing. It changes moods so much, it really makes you think about his madness also [laughs], in a very simplistic way. It’s interesting, if you listen how he goes up and down, up and down, using this, using that in a very short period of time in that movement, it was something that always struck me. It’s not very organic in a way and I like that, it seems not perfect, with edges showing. I don’t know how he came back to me. I liked the idea of putting some music, it would be a classical music or romantic music. It was something I had from way back when and I like to include it; it’s part of my life before the film in a way. It was between that and the first movement of his third symphony, which is much better known and it’s beautiful, but there’s also difference. I really wanted the beginning of the film to be more calm. In Viola the film starts by giving very important information, so in this one I wanted to start with the black image and in Italian. I thought it would be good to have a film called The Princess of France introduced by an Italian through a German composer. I thought that that clash was something interesting. Imagine if I would be using a French composer, that would be too silly, I think. I always liked Schumann as a figure, so I liked to include him.

Then, it’s true that to concentrate music is good. I’m not good at writing, I take a time, I cannot concentrate. That piece is so loud that if you listen to it [laughs], you can’t listen to anything else, you need to be focused on something because it’s so loud you cannot connect with anything but the thing you need to do. So when I was writing the film two months before shooting, the music actually helped and in that moment the music was not inside the film. That’s how it appeared again: I had it, I YouTubed Schumann and it helped me to concentrate. When I decided to put music, I said, “Okay, this music has been accompanying me for a little while. It’s a little awkward because it’s not this very well-known piece. I like the thing that it does, so I think I’ll include it.” Then it was pretty much by chance how it worked with the choreography of the football match. That was a surprise, really. In the end, it helped decide which take I was choosing because I liked the idea that some things are in sync – the very first surprise, I realized that it seems like it’s following the music – and there were takes that had more or less of this sync. I really liked that there would be a couple of those syncs, but not a lot, it shouldn’t be perfect, it should be something in motion. I would be suspicious if it was too tight, too perfect, it would seem like a Hollywood thing. The third symphony starts really fast and would work for Viola, but not for this, which I wanted to start more slowly. In the first one, the horn appears, the winds appear, little by little, then it goes crazy. 

It comes back in, there’s a second cue of it.

Yeah, that’s an idea of the sound editor, Mercedes [Tennina]. That was put in two months ago, when I was finishing she was putting in sounds and trying to produce depth in sound: these trains, ambulances, birds, wind, and she asked me, don’t you want to put some music in the house? I was like, “No, I don’t feel any need to, I wouldn’t want to over-naturalize it at the same time.” But she was insistent and said maybe some of the music you used. I said, “Oh no, I think it’s a good idea. Let’s try it.” I felt that it was very strange what happens, maybe it’s my personal impression, but I decided to put it even though it may seem like a very underlying thing. The film starts with it, it goes forty minutes, then suddenly the music comes back again and you’re not expecting that. I think that for who is listening and watching the film, it takes you back to the beginning, and somehow that scene [where the music is used again] is the beginning of the story, because the plot of the film is really the end. You have the football, the dream, the theatre, the museum, the dancing, the repetitions, and of course the plot is leading the way, but the true narrative episode is the last one. I really like the idea that the film starts there and that the music that is in the beginning comes back here. I think in my brain, unconsciously it will hit, so I said yes.

Let’s talk about some of those repetitions. You have a few sections that repeat specific shots, there’s the kissing, there’s the Club Telefonos, the recording – how did you develop that style and what do you think it brings to the film?

Well, as I’m working also with theatre, the idea of repetition is natural. At the same time, I did that also in Viola and I wanted to do it differently in a way. In Viola, it’s realist repetition because she’s just doing it in that time and space and I decided in this film, it’s more abstract. I could use repetition in a more direct way and a much more abstract way and Club Telefonos has to do with that. It may be a strange idea, but I prefer to try it: the idea of how can you express some way of thinking. In my idea, he’s thinking that, the versions of how he can produce his plot. He thinks it once in one way, he thinks it twice and it’s in a second way, three times and it’s the closest he could actually be. I don’t explain this, it’s not explained, but I think it makes a rhythmic impression that I think helps you to see it, because at first you think the first sequence is real. But then the second appears and I like those modulations, this idea of ambiguity. I like to produce that. The same thing in the football match in a way, the idea of shifting, putting in question what we’re looking at. I think repetition helps me to do that. The radio has to do with this guy pissing of this other guy. I realize it was the first time I was doing a scene with guys. It’s my first masculine scene. They’re in the foreground, she’s in the background, and we’re seeing how he’s pissing him off. There’s a tension between them because you know that the other guy knows that she hasn’t told him anything. Hard to explain, but I think that part of the film is pretty clear. In Viola it would try to attract, to do this movement, and here it’s the opposite – it’s something similar, but the result is different.

The kissing scene is different because it is realist. In Rosalinda, I also did a kissing sequence, but it’s not from the same person. All this re-working of some things I like and think that I can still work on them, I think there’s still some fresh juice to extract from these things. I have experienced that thing of being away from someone, then suddenly meeting again, and the idea of that kind of obsession in kissing that there is [laughs] and I like. I thought it would be nice to have that sort of a montage. I’m usually working with long takes of medium length, I don’t know if you can measure things like that, but I try to resolve things in one shot more clearly. I like moving the camera so and so. I think it’s good for the balance of the film to not be systematic, to have these kinds of changes from time to time. The kissing sequence would be easy to tell the story of these two in love, the kisses are not actually perfect, because the couple is not good. These actors don’t make a good couple, as persons. I like that, I put them together because of that. I knew that in Viola the couple would be very friendly, they would seem like friends more than a couple, and here they’re more opposites, but at the same time they still fell in love. Maybe she’s part of his plot, I don’t know. I like this idea of obsessive kissing and seeing her doubt of this. In the end, it’s very simple editing procedures. It’s not Kuleshov, but also… It’s a matter of breaking a pace. If not, it’s monotone, all for the eyes – repetition helps.

What about when you’re not cutting? Specifically when the camera is scanning along with paintings, there are a lot of pans happening, too.

Yeah, that was something also that I thought that this film would be on, like the panning – this gaze and concentration, in moving from one place to another. With the painting, the obsession of seeing this skin painting. The film concentrates on the woman’s body, the model body, and on the skin. How the skin was painted, the abstraction of trying to see the paint and not the painting. I was very close and I thought that if I was close and move the camera, you would see the brush stroke. You would see the difference between a Bouguereau, who doesn’t like the stroke to be shown, and a Manet. If you fix the camera, maybe you would be distracted. I would rather move the camera, I think it helps to see the painting more and have different angles. When you see the different angles, you see for instance, when the paint is think, the little shadow that the stroke has, especially in the Manet. I think it was important to keep on watching and insist on that. At the same time, as there is so much talking, it’s not something that it is obvious that I want you to be looking at the stroke, but for me that helps me to do the scene. It’s not that I’m doing a theory on painting and film at all, but it helps me to produce the actual shot that I would put there in order to tell the story. In the radio sequence, I wanted the pans were a help for not controlling much of what I was shooting. I put these four ladies with their mics – or more actually, six – and the panning would let me not intervene very much in the scene, just scan it, but at the same time I would be next Fernando [Lockett] and tell him exactly what I want. I think that the panning and something more slow, make us be a little bit more in there and listening to the texts (or reading in your case), would help. If I was cutting a lot, you would be thinking it’s more affirmative, but the pan brings in some air. Suddenly, if I do one cut, it really means something, it has accumulated something. If I’m cutting all the time, it becomes a little thin, also monotone. The pans help me to bring in some air, not intervene that much, but then are commentated by one or two cuts that I do, because I’m trying to get into these people’s minds. I’m trying to relate it to the Shakespeare words that they’re saying, but I try not to do it very obviously, because it would be foolish to be so parallel. 

Your ending is not really a parallel to Shakespeare, either, it kind of changes things slightly. How did you come to that interesting conclusion? Not the epilogue, but the conclusion of the story where the photo is dropped.

It was a film that I wanted to put a lot of voice-overs and a lot of different ways that voices can be in a film without being very obvious, but putting them here and there. In the end, it was constructed by putting all these points of view, of these women, I feel the film finishes when we access his point of view. I thought it was a good idea to suddenly crash with him, doing a rupture, similar to Viola – the intrusion of the voice-over. Here you have it all the time, but in the end I release it. In Viola it’s realist in a way and here the film shows you a possibility again. It ends with a negative version of what actually happened and you have to think about what actually happened. Something is said, of course, it is said in the voice, but the film doesn’t care about the actual actions in a way, or the actual ending of the story. But seeing what he would have rather had for his ending. I thought this gave that shot another level, different from Viola. It would be effective to close the film, it would have a closure. I can do whatever, I can move things, it can be confusing, I could have a theory of confusion for building a story, but I do like that there’s a sense of closure. It wouldn’t be very lazy, there would be something formal in the system that would make the film finish. In the script, it was not that way – the voice over was not there. In the end, I realized it would be better if it wouldn’t end happily. At the same time, it’s not that sad either. I like that ambivalence and I think it was achieved by doing this negative version of the end.

The use of intertexts and art in this film is interesting versus your other’s, because even though there’s theatre and small business commerce with the bootlegs, there’s a legitmization of art with the radio station, the museum, there’s more of an institutional structure for how art happens. How did you select the museum?

The museum had to do with Bouguereau. One year before doing the film, I told the plot-line of what I was thinking of with my DP, Fernando: four women around a guy, he comes back to Buenos Aires to do a play, he goes back to the women and messes up something. I was in Buenos Aires and the next day I went back to New York, where I live, and Fernando sends me this painting that I’ve never seen from a painter that I’ve never heard of – it’s William-Adolphe Bouguereau and the painting is Nymphes et un satyre and of course it’s a guy, so it’s a satyr surrounded by nymphs. There are four nymphs and then Fernando told me about the light in the painting that was very special, it was very interesting. Suddenly, when I see the very straight-forward coincidence of four ladies and one guy, I researched and realized that the painting is at the Met. Suddenly when I go there, I see it’s beautifully restored, there is a lot of text, it’s a big painting for which they’re very proud, and the story they have is very funny. I researched Bouguereau some more and I realized there were two Bouguereau paintings in Buenos Aires. This painting became, a little bit, the script of the film. I started watching it and all this round movements, this satyr that would usually rape nymphs, the nymphs are somehow taking him down. That is something that is a motif in the film: women around men and being more powerful in a way, or overpowering. Suddenly this painting had many levels, it was like the plot in very simple terms, the characters, a structural movement that the painting has, this circle that goes on and on.

In the film, they say his painting style is so real that it becomes strange, that’s kind of a parallel.

Yeah, because that’s what he did. I researched and I could not shoot that painting, because it was in New York and I was not shooting there. I realized there were two paintings in Buenos Aires and I should include him somehow. Afterward, I thought I should include this painting that is in New York and I came up with this idea of the postcard. I should include everything that is part of the process: Schumann, Bouguereau. I like to give my characters jobs, so I was thinking of the museum. It’s the national museum, I’m sure they will let us shoot there because it’s for the public. I kept on reading about Bouguereau and I was surprised that he was the official painter, very academic painter – there are paintings I didn’t like that much, but there are paintings that he did that are very crazy. He goes a little bit out of his mind. He ends up being a symbolist, I don’t know if it was willingly. Especially when he focuses on nymphs, he goes topsy-turvy really, he goes mad. A wave of thirty women in a landscape with a satyr there, everything is so perfect, he’s so obsessed with being perfect and so on. It makes him a little bit ridiculous and a little bit surreal. They are much more strange than what it looks like at first. If one thinks of French painting, one would think much more of the Impressionists and I like that he hated them and they hated him – they would say very naughty things about him. It was fun. It’s weird that there are two of his paintings in Buenos Aires. I included one, then I included the Manet, because it’s the best painting that we have there. It’s amazing. They’re shown in almost the same year, the same motif, but different ideas of the world. It was nice to put those things together.

Is there also a parallel between the line talking about him as a business man that inflated the value of things with a character coming back, setting up the radio?

Yeah, that’s true, I hadn’t thought about that consciously. It’s true that I don’t like much that process of Bouguereau, I’m making fun of that – being suspicious of that. He’s not an Impressionist, but it’s true that the system that he works on relates to what we do in film, also, or in theatre – these small companies. I never thought of that contrast. Now we hate Bouguereau [laughs].

What about the Manet specifically – we talked about the brushstrokes being different and in the same museum, but is it a counterpoint in other ways?

It had to do with representing women. Both paintings are naked women, painted by men. In the film, there’s all these ladies being photographed by Fernando and put in the screen by me and so on, it was a matter of showing that idea of representation. I started questioning myself, look at the position of one model and the previous position of another model – let’s see if there’s something in the pose that talks about the nature of these painters, too. They say in the film in a way, Bouguereau is like an ideal woman, it’s very conservative, very academic, a horrible idea in a way. In Manet, you have something else, you have the breeze, the air, the big bones and a face that may not be perfect and angelic. I prefer that. I like the idea that this hand and how she’s rejecting the viewer, I like the idea that a painter would reject the viewer. The other one is like a porno pic in a way. I’m sure that there was an erotic aspect that he was working on, as well. The information in the Met was that it was in a brothel, it was funny. I like the idea that he was superstitious in the second part of the 19th century and of course the Impressionists took over. He was a little bit forgotten in the 20th century, a little bit lost. The Americans really bought paintings, buying European art, so it was a prestige. Then they started buying the Impressionists. The idea that these were so important back then, they lost value and they took them to America, because America had an idea about the value of things because they were coming from the European academies. I like that what was so valuable or important for the bourgeoisie, suddenly got lost and ended up in a whorehouse. I don’t know if that’s what it was, but there were women for men. In that saloon, where they were smoking and there was nightlife indoors, the painting got damaged. The Met, because they’re so proud of their restoration, which they should be because it looks wonderful, they describe how it got dark in the whorehouse. In the postcard, you can see that it looks different, it’s much more dark, and it says it was in Massachusetts, when now it is in New York. So the postcard has been done with the previous, unrestored version of it and you see it’s much more dark and orange. I see there, all the smoke of the cigarettes of all these men that attended this whorehouse. The film doesn’t have anything to do with that, it’s just something that I see in these things that I put in, but I like the layers that are accumulating. I like that there’s a story behind what was painted, this glass can have a story from which I can do a film. Maybe Manet’s a little bit more interesting, but maybe not. 

What does it say that Victor is kind of projecting his relationships with women onto the painting?

Yeah, because this idea of shooting the women and painting the women, I’m making this parallel in a way. I like the idea of incorporating this art to your daily life. You’re treating it like postcards, like the football stickers. You’re trading them, incorporating them into your daily life, a relationship you can have. The montage of putting these paintings together made me think not only about the Impressionists and academia, but the idea of rejection and approval and attraction. I think one is attraction and one is rejection and in the film I say that one lady’s rejecting while the other is taking, so the parallels were easy. I go to show something that has nothing to do with the film and try to incorporate it into the plot. It helped me to produce the plot in a way.

In the final credit sequence, you’re scanning the painting again, but I’m trying to remember – I don’t think the face of the woman in the painting is fully included in that – and it ends on the foot?

Yeah. I wanted to include it, things need to be repeated in films. Once is not enough and I’m going too fast, I know, I’m putting too many stimulants – the painting, the talking, the plot. I know that I’m pushing them, so it was nice to finish with a painting again in order to see it again. The painting is the Manet, which I prefer [laughs] so I put it there. I thought it was nice how Fernando shot it this time, following, and you see the hair, you miss the face, but you see the separation between the skin and the background. I like that. The Manet is not absolutely abstract at the same time, it’s pretty realist in a way. It doesn’t have the obsession of Bouguereau, you wouldn’t see the strokes unless you went close. So again, it’s this idea of abstraction, of fusing the postcard with this, and the foot was just by chance – not by chance, but we had to finish somewhere. The feet are always interesting and they’re also sensual. If not, they wouldn’t have put them. In a Q&A, that question actually came up, it was interesting that someone was actually saying something similar – faces would be more attractive than feet, but I don’t think that’s right. It could be the opposite. People that have foot fetishes would agree with me [laughs]. I was surprised by the figure of the foot and trying to see one foot and another foot, you see also the same thing: how the foot of one is very normal and I like that, it’s beautiful because it doesn’t have anything that makes it very special. At the same time, you really see the feet, it’s not hidden. It’s very much there, he could have put the model in another way, but I think that there’s something important in showing bare feet. It’s obvious to finish with a face, but I already showed the faces a lot. In Viola I showed faces, here I am showing feet [laughs]. I feel they must have taken a lot of work in painting feet, I don’t think they’re very easy to paint. Maybe a bosom is easier. They’re beautiful: dirty, so banal, so human are feet in contact with the soil, better than the idealized face. Feet would be Manet and the face would be Bouguereau. It ends with a Manet in both ways.

What about the epilogue? Is that getting a lot of questions – are they missing it?

Yeah, no it’s weird. The film is very new, I opened it in Locarno less than a month ago and here now. There were two very different screenings, because Locarno was like 2500 people, like a stadium – it’s not like a stadium, it is a stadium. They put up the lights and people were exiting. At first you would say, “Okay, there’s this epilogue and I really like the idea that some people may not see it.” But if you put the lights on, people will leave, so you would say put them down. In Locarno they put them on, but it’s so huge, the place, that I really had the performative experience that I really wanted to see. Because I will be introducing the movie many times from here until I stop and I will always look at the epilogue. I think it was interesting to see how people would react, because there would be a little bit of a shock; they would be leaving and they suddenly would hear the film goes on, and they would stop. Or no, they will leave because they hate it or something, maybe they’re in a rush. In Locarno, it was very good to see that. It was so huge that it was impossible for them to leave the premises before the film really ended. They were leaving like after a football match and the film went on, people stopped and they listened. Some people sat down, others just kept on going, and so on.

Here in Toronto, with [programmer] Andréa Picard we said the opposite, let’s keep the lights off. It’s not that easy, because always in theatres they like to put them on, so you have to be there. I was very much there, so that was great from her. Actually, the people stayed sitting down, it’s very much a Pavlov thing, it worked. There’s always some questions, because it’s the last thing they see, and it has another tone that is more of a document in a way. I was always curious to see if people would understand what was happening. It is a film about sound, I think that it’s somehow a confirmation that it’s a film about sound. Or it puts a tension in sound – it’s not a film about sound. To get what that scene is, you have to pay attention to sound. The sound will tell you the space, how many people are in the scene, you would see María Villar [Ana] again working out that beautiful monologue that I really like. That’s why I’m putting it in all the time. As I put the prologue from Henry V, I said, “Okay, let’s put the epilogue again.” I was not expecting to have Elena, the one month baby in the film, but then it was impossible to avoid it, so we kept on shooting. In the end when I listen to all the takes, the best one was that, because you really see something else, not just the delivery of the text. At the same time, in an epilogue you’re already out of the drama. This was exactly that in a very realist way, we experience going out of the film – it’s a little bit of an experience, it’s not a make-up. If it was a perfect theatrical interpretation that would be beautiful, it would be a little bit more fake. Here, you’re really out of the drama because you see María going to her baby, going away from the mic, you see the space while you’re listening, and if you’re paying a little bit of attention you can see that. I think it worked okay. All this I can say after doing it, I was not expecting it. When I did that, I did it with a very simple recorder and I was not expecting, I was just going to use it to see it if it worked. Life shows you best. In some years, Elena will be able to listen to herself when she was one month old, so that’s nice I think.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, and his written work includes numerous video essays, investigating formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.