Sooner or later, every art movie faces the accusation of impenetrability, whether fair or not. In abandoning the clichés of mainstream cinema, directors make their work “difficult”: dialogue without substance, characters without identities, and mysteries without solutions. Handled badly, the lack of structure becomes a kind of structure, and these features become clichés themselves, reassuring a lazy audience that it’s seen this kind of thing before. Impenetrability also provides the savvy moviegoer with opportunities for displays of intellectual machismo, as if sitting through a four-hour film with no plot is like downing ten shots of tequila without getting sick. And impenetrable movies create a whole army of middleman writers, professors, and (gulp) critics, ready to cite Freud and Marx to explain what you just saw. Even the word itself is telling. “Impenetrable” sounds as if movies are made to be ripped open by their viewers, and any movie that can withstand them must be a failure.
“The Princess of France,” the sixth film from Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro, would be a plausible candidate for impenetrability if the experience of watching it weren’t completely different from the way one usually processes a challenging film. You don’t bump your head against this story; you walk through it like a mist. As the opening credits roll, a soccer game changes almost imperceptibly from a fair fight between orange and green teams to a mob of green jerseys charging the lone orange goalie. It’s important to recognize this sequence for what it is — a magic trick. Piñeiro’s ultimate goal is not mystify, but to entertain; it’s just that, like a good sleight of hand, the entertainment in no way hinges on learning the trick’s secret. The sneakiest camera maneuver I noticed occurs while Victor, the closest thing we get to a protagonist, and his on-off lovers, Ana and Paula, are wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires. A tiny copy of Rodin’s The Kiss seems to be only a few inches from the camera, until Ana walks in front of it and we realize that it must be seven feet tall.
Victor, Ana, and Paula, along with Guillermo, Natalia, Lorena, and Carla (at 66 minutes, there’s barely enough time to learn everyone’s name), are young actors rehearsing a radio production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” They are, in other words, highly talented pretenders, equally capable of delivering their lines into the microphone and bouncing between two or three lovers without arousing suspicion. Victor has just returned from his father’s funeral in Mexico, and eagerly reconnects with his old girlfriend, Paula, whose pregnancy (“I forget who the father is”) seems like the only obstacle to an endless reshuffling of romantic partners. Victor moves on to Ana, who sleeps with him, then immediately writes him a Dear John letter, explaining, hilariously, that they need to focus on Shakespeare. None of the actors can concentrate on rehearsing their play – their lives are Shakespearean enough. When they’re not in the studio, they’re flirtatiously practicing their lines, wistfully recalling the past, or disappearing into Piñeiro’s manipulations. Not even the Bard is safe: theater fans will notice that the radio play isn’t “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” but a stew of that play, “The Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night” and “Henry V.” A fragment from the last of these, twice spoken in the film, might as well be its summary: “Let us, ciphers to this great accompt / On your imaginary forces work.” In a stunning dance sequence, played out in one long take, Carla describes the night she met Victor at a club, and for a few minutes, it’s impossible to tell if she’s remembering her night, reenacting it, or traveling back in time.
I don’t mean to suggest that Piñeiro’s magic tricks are revolutionary from any sort of technical standpoint — he was already messing around with Shakespeare in his last film, “Viola,” after all. What’s more interesting is the way he deliberately tips his hand to reveal what lies beneath the tricks, both his own and his characters’. This is a melancholy film, though its melancholy creeps up slowly, first from Victor’s father, then from Victor himself, as his glib womanizing switches from charming to desperate. When Shakespeare called his actors ciphers, he meant that they were fascinating enigmas, but also zeros. If “The Princess of France” has a narrative arc, it is the journey from one definition of “cipher” to the other. No small part of our sadness as we reach an ending stems from our regret at having to leave behind the fairyland Buenos Aires, where names and places refuse to stay put, and the hardest choice anyone makes is which beauty to kiss. The problem of how to stage a happy ending and simultaneously say “goodbye” is as old as fiction. Arguably, Victor’s final moments onscreen – a cruel breakup with Paula, a final fantasy of what could have transpired if they’d stayed together, and the unforgettable line, “I wish it could have been like that” – do neither.
Yet walking out of a movie theater and back to our responsibilities isn’t so bad. During the closing credits, a woman’s voice, mimicking the epilogue to “Henry V,” apologizes for the play we’ve just sat through, but implies that there are plenty of performances left to enjoy. If it weren’t for the sound of a crying baby, presumably Paula’s, it would seem as if we’ve come full circle, ready for another round of harmless fun. But for at least one of the characters, real adulthood, that is, real investment in another human being, has begun. The juxtaposition of the two sounds – the cry, a symbol of responsibility, and the voice, a symbol of innocence – implies a kind of equivalence between them, and suggests that if we love one, we shouldn’t fear the other. Onscreen or in life, the show goes on.
If “The Princess of France” dives headfirst into its fictionalized South America, Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” spends most of its running time treading lightly. The beaches and tidepools where the characters spend the first half hour, with their rich reds and greens, evoke an age of Technicolor that’s as far removed from our own era as it is from that of the film. The colors are too warm; instead of providing period detail, they’re rose-colored glasses the audience can’t take off. Indeed, it might be helpful to understand the cinematography in comparison with the kitschy-exotic paintings of Fredrick Remington and Howard Pyle, talented artists whose glossy style helped cover up the U.S.’ 19th century colonialism. In an early scene, a leather-faced soldier complains of the native “coconut heads,” then in the same breath asks Captain Dinesen, played by Viggo Mortensen, if he may court his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg. This casual pairing of two kinds of greed, one imperial, the other sexual, says a great deal about the West without saying anything at all. No wonder the camera maintains a chilly distance from these characters – it’s afraid of what it’ll find if it comes any closer.
Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish engineer who’d be almost as much of a foreigner back in Europe as he is in the New World, as perpetually confused (when the soldier asks about his daughter, he can barely remember enough Spanish to turn him down). He wears his uniform as if it were a spacesuit protecting him from some deadly germ; whether the germ is native to South America or the material world itself remains unclear. On the night Ingeborg runs off with a handsome officer, he spends so long getting dressed that it’s morning by the time he mounts his horse. Yet his daughter’s abduction forces him into the world, off his horse, and, finally, out of his uniform for good. Dinesen and his military companions, we learn, have come to this place in search of the legendary land of Jauja – but all those who search for it are doomed to lose their way. In Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (another film about a European and his teenage daughter in search of the New World’s riches), getting lost was the first step on the road to madness. For Alonso, getting sidetracked can only be an improvement if the quest is evil to begin with. Back at the Spanish encampment, the soldiers fuss over the importance of making it to the ball that night, unaware that Dinesen is wandering further and further from the trail. In “Jauja,” quests are either completed, because of their insignificance, or swallowed up in vaster events.
The middle third of the film is low on plot and dialogue. Dinesen soils his beautiful coat, smears his hands in blood and horse manure, and nearly falls to his death, but for long stretches, he’s simply walking. Alonso could be said to have failed at putting us into his protagonist’s head if he hadn’t already made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in doing so. Whether in “A History of Violence” or “The Lord of the Rings,” Mortensen has never been a convincing stand-in for the audience; the directors who make the most of him recognize his talent for crawling around under the microscope, for being watched from a safe distance. This is his quest, not ours. As a result, the pleasures of these sequences, the very definition of what gets classified as impenetrable, unfold in retrospect. The harsh desert doesn’t change much as we venture inland, but we do.
Dinesen’s mysterious encounter, the thematic center of the film, comes as a relief, from the desert and, perhaps, the slow pacing. Until this moment, something vaguely magical has been lurking just out of view; now, it shows its face. While Piñeiro uses camera tricks to manipulate the physical world in clear, recognizable ways, it’s not clear exactly what trick Alonso has performed, only that something very important has happened. At the same time, he pulls off a second feat that we don’t immediately recognize, since it’s both more and less tangible. Dinesen’s movement underground is equally a movement inward; for the first time in the film, he looks into another person’s eyes and tries to communicate. That he largely fails is beside the point; his failure is proof of trying, just as the sadness with which he leaves is proof of genuine human feeling. We’ve been so afraid of what we might find beneath the surface of this place that it comes as a shock to find only peace and gentleness. Somehow, astoundingly, Alonso has generated authentic warmth in the middle of this huge, chilly desert of a film.
The film’s coda solves few of its mysteries, but says a lot about what we expect from our entertainment. Alonso provides us plenty of extra information in the last five minutes, none of which offers a sense of closure, only new questions; the mystery remains impenetrable. But can this really be regarded as a weakness? What amazes me most about “Jauja” and “The Princess of France” when viewed back-to-back is their keen awareness of their own place in the cinematic and literary canons, in other words, of the expectations their audiences bring with them to the theater. With this awareness comes an impressive savvy about how to control the gap between the viewer and the screen: these films let us in, push us back, make us reluctant to leave, and occasionally make us eager to escape. Most of all, they make us consider our own desires, whether as pretenders, as viewers, or as consumers. The strangeness, beautiful shots of seals that bookend “Jauja” are identical in every way, yet they seem fundamentally different – the first is cold, while the second has its own unique majesty. Because this change has occurred entirely in our minds, we realize that the strangeness was only ever our own. That’s not a bad philosophy for watching a film.