An art-house take on the apocalypse told through the eyes of two Helens, H. is occasionally attractive but dramatically inert.
Let’s bitch it out…
The low-key apocalypse has been done by indies before (my personal favourite remains Don McKellar’s sublime Last Night), so H. isn’t treading new ground in its depiction of the fall of Troy, NY, a town under siege by a series of mysterious events. Per Variety, the film is purportedly inspired by a series of strange real life events (unconnected), which are fashioned together in a film that is obsessed with childbearing and marriage.
H. is divided into four sections and tells the stories of two Helens: elder Helen in her sixties (Robin Bartlett, very good) and younger Helen (Rebecca Dayan) in her 30s. Both are married, though it can’t be said that they are happy marriages. Functional is the better term. Elder Helen and her husband Roy (Julian Gamble) are retired and fill the day with their own interests, though Roy secretly craves time away from Helen’s nagging and tolerates, but does not share, her interest in raising a creepy lifelike “reborn” doll, Henry. Younger Helen and her husband Alex (Will Janowitz) work closely together as performance artists whose practice involves deconstructing sex, gender and the bodies. Our introduction to them is in a series of photographs that depict domestic abuse and Helen describes their process as difficult, which seems an apt description of their marriage and portends challenges for the offspring that Helen is carrying.
Their relationship has yet to work out the kinks that have turned into habit and resignation for older Helen and Roy. Young Helen and Alex are still fraught with anxiety and mistrust. Moments before we learn that Alex cheated on Helen with a younger woman, Helen asks the truly caustic question “how many years do you think you’ll stay after the baby is born?” Yikes (She estimates no more than five, by the way)
Intermixed between older Helen’s daily routine, which is organized around the doll, who she treats like a real child (including daily 5am nursings), and younger Helen’s trips to the doctor, strange things begin to occur. Appliances and glasses break with no warning, piercing noises periodically fill the air, a black horse is spotted running in the city and, just before the first section break between Helens, a meteor streaks across the sky. In the aftermath there is an outbreak of disappearances, people go into trances staring at walls and everyone keeps falling into what one newscaster calls “spontaneously induced narcoleptic states”, including a mass of individuals out in the middle of the woods.
Our introduction of both Helens’ lives and the increasing numbers of mysterious events (always mediated through news programs on the TV and radio) are enough to keep audiences’ interest throughout the first two sections. Unfortunately as the film heads into the latter two sections, the lethargic pacing and chilly aesthetics start to take their toll. It becomes increasingly evident that co-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia are more interested in composing artful shots and introducing mysteries rather than properly exploring them. Plus any kind of momentum in either Helen’s life is cut short each time the story switches to the other (younger Helen fares worse, not only because her story is less engaging, but because she always follows her elder version).
As expected there are no answers by the time the credits roll. It would be easy to lament that lack of explanation for the strange events, but this would be redundant since it is clear early on that Attieh and Garcia are uninterested in offering answers. Unfortunately their investigation into two marriages and both Helens’ need to nurture and bear life fails to amount to anything. While the film looks great (Gucci is a partner), the winter colour scheme (whites, tan, topes) is depressing and keeps audiences at a distance. It’s saying a lot that the 96 runtime felt like 2.5 hrs. I didn’t dislike it as much as the Variety critic who fell asleep three times, but I can’t say that the film lived up to expectations.
Bottom Line: H. is intriguing, but the pacing, colour scheme and narrative decision to chop the film into four sections doesn’t do the final product any favours. This is one solely for the most dedicated of art house crowds.
H. continues its long festival run with a stop at the Sidewalk Film Festival on August 30.