There’s a reason why petits fours are a patisserie staple, and grands fours are not: what’s puffily perfect at bite size can turn cloying in a larger slice. So it proves, in a sense, with “Hermia & Helena,” in which Argentinian writer-director Matias Piñeiro repeats the recipe behind his previous, scarcely feature-length Shakespearean cupcakes (all loosely drawn from the Bard’s comedies), only for the winsomeness to spread itself a little thin across 90 minutes. Riffing very liberally on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — directly invoked here as a text to be translated into Spanish — this tale of a Buenos Aires theater director finding her feet and potentially losing her heart in New York City lopes along with the same idle, chatty charm as Piñeiro’s hour-long “Viola” and “The Princess of France.” But with its tricksy timeline and waifish subplots, the film feels unduly stretched even to reach its modest length, while our dramaturgy-fixated protagonist is slow to stumble into a compelling arc of her own.
Despite their petite form, the Argentina-set, Spanish-lingo “Viola” and “The Princess of France” were both distributed theatrically in the U.S. by The Cinema Guild, so “Hermia & Helena” — bolstered by its predominantly American setting and English dialogue — should follow suit without a hitch. There’s a personal motivation behind the switch in milieu: Setting aside the Shakespearean reference points, Piñeiro was inspired by his own expat experience in the Big Apple, where, like his protagonist, he traveled on an arts fellowship. As the film switches from rapid-fire Spanish in its Buenos Aires interludes to its more tacit, contemplative New York scenes, it succumbs to the faintly airless tone that can come to non-native filmmakers working in English for the first time. That said, a certain degree of lost-in-translation frustration is key to its wandering narrative.
Much of the teasing, poker-faced game-playing in “Hermia and Helena” — the title refers to the young women of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” though they have no namesakes on screen — hinges on the doubling and substitution of personalities. Sensitive, ingenuous Camila (played by Piñeiro regular Agustina Muñoz) arrives in New York to take the place of her friend Carmen (Maria Villar) in a creative residency program, as well in a bijou rental apartment. It’s not long before she also seems to inherit a number of Carmen’s relationships, including a romance with amiable American hipster Lukas (recent indie fixture Keith Poulson), a conflicting dalliance with twee filmmaker Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa) and, most ambiguously, an elusive, alluring postcard correspondence with traveling Frenchwoman and former program fellow Danielle (Mati Diop, lending proceedings some Euro-arthouse credentials).
And so this merry-go-round of overlapping identities spins on, complicated by a staggered, one-step-forward-two-steps-back flashback structure — sometimes to the point of needless opacity. Occasionally, we hop back to Camila’s former, more sun-kissed life in Argentina; other off-piste distractions are more tenuous, as when we dip into Gregg’s Daphne du Maurier-inspired experimental short, built from an existing vintage work. It’s a light-footed feat of geometric storytelling, evoking the Shakespeare play that so fascinates Camila more in its general spirit of wistful-whimsical chaos than in specific narrative terms. But beneath the ornate, fidgety arrangement of it all, neither film nor protagonist seem to have much sense of what they’re about, until a more sustained late-film passage sees Camila delving melancholically into her complex family history. To us and her alike, then, the personal fancies and flirtations that have hitherto consumed the bulk of the film are made to seem rather immaterial.
Like Camila, Piñeiro is unafraid to wear his influences (beyond just the Bard) blithely on his sleeve. An opening credit dedicates the film to Japanese actress Setsuko Hara, renowned for her collaborations with Yasujiro Ozu: There’s a certain zen contentment to the Argentine’s filmmaking that nods to the Japanese humanist master’s work, albeit with considerable more fussiness in the telling. (There’s a sweet, guileless placidity to Muñoz’s performance, too, though her surrounding ensemble is less consistent.) Cuttings from Jacques Rivette and Hong Sang-soo also appear to be on the directorial mood board here, while there’s a jaunty, neurotic streak of Woody Allen in the heavy presence of Scott Joplin on the soundtrack. If “Hermia & Helena” finally seems short on complete ideas, its assorted allusions provide compensatory frosting.