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H. | 2014 Venice Film Festival Review

What’s the Matter with Helen?: Attieh & Garcia’s Bizarre Parable Goes Over Heads

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia H. PosterGenerally, one would assume that a concise understanding of something would be necessary to make one conceivably describe it as a tragedy. Not so, apparently, as co-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have retooled a classic Greek tragedy for our modern times with H., a film whose meaning feels about as abbreviated as its title. Naggingly vague and rather too confounding to interpret any of it literally, they’ve created more of a parable of Greek tragedy than a reinterpretation, its themes and messages so obfuscated by its odd structure and rhythm you may just be put off by the whole procedure. While it would be easier to write the film off as pretentious, there is a strange, gleeful power about the film, reaching moments that one could very well term tragicomic. A concoction of images and repeated symbols will lodge themselves in your mind after the credits roll, but your remembrance of the film may feel more like a murky nightmare than a cohesive cinematic experience.

In Troy, New York, two women named Helen lead very different lives. The first Helen (Robin Bartlett) is in her 60s and lives with her husband, Roy (Julian Gamble). Roy likes to lock himself in the bathroom and take naps, and we soon understand why he’s grown rather distant from his wife. For reasons unexplained, Helen has an incredibly life-like baby doll, called a “reborn” which she treats like an actual human baby, feeding it, clothing, bathing, etc. She even takes video of her feeding techniques to share with an online reborn community. Eventually she hosts a party for a group of other reborn mothers. Roy goes off on a fishing trip with his best bud, Harold (Roger Robinson), with whom he confesses his disdain for his wife. Then, something falls out of the sky making a large explosion that many think is a meteor. Thereafter, rampant disappearances in the community begin to take place, including Roy and Harold. We switch perspectives to the second Helen (Rebecca Dayan), a thirty something artist who has a successful career with her partner, Alex (Will Janowitz). Helen discovers she is pregnant while the community around them falls apart. Insistent that something is wrong with the fetus, they rush an ultrasound to discover that she’s not pregnant at all…yet she is still convinced that she is. Maybe the doctors missed something? Meanwhile, the missing people have all been found lying comatose in a field, most awakening with amnesia. The first Helen is dismayed to find that Roy is not amongst them.

In order to even initially converse about what Attieh and Garcia are doing with H., you’ll have to be a little bit familiar with Greek mythology. Cut into four parts, which go back and forth between the Helens, rousing music announces the end of each segment as we witness the large floating of a statue float down the Hudson. We assume this to be the head of a Helen of Troy statue. A black stallion appears in each chapter, one that’s mutated by the final segment into a horse-man. The fake babies and empty stomachs seem to be aligned with the Trojan horse, vessels meant to house something, but emptied or even barren now. The field, which the recurring (and rather cheaply assembled) newscast informs us has been termed the Field of Lost Souls may perhaps be a reference to the Asphodel Meadows, a place where the souls of folks that have lived average lives go to stay.

This is all very heady and sometimes involving, but its strangeness sometimes doesn’t sustain interest, such as with the central conceit of the Helens, who are of varying interest. Linda Bartlett, a character actress many should recognize for her notable supporting role in Inside Llewyn Davis, is the more arresting figure, the reborns being a nice perverse touch. The second Helen isn’t quite so engaging. The experiences of the couple in the film’s corresponding plotline play out like a segment from the 2007 horror film The Signal. Like the Rubik’s cube that shows up solved on a key chain and then later in disarray, moments of H. are pleasurably discombobulating. But like the cube, it’s going to depend on how long you’re going to play with it before becoming exasperated.

Venice Film Festival Screening Room Review – (Biennale College – Cinema) 93 Mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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