H. relies on clever editing manipulations and pithy reaction shots rather than on flashy special effects.
By Betsy Sherman
I like a nice fade-to-white. Unlike its cousin, the fade-to-black, which we usually take for granted as meaning that time has elapsed in between two scenes, the fade-to-white can be unsettling, even goosebump-inducing. The movie H., which can be described as either a science-fiction-y take on Greek mythology or a Greek myth-y take on science fiction, has a lot of fades-to-white, as well as other visual and auditory touches that may bring on involuntary reactions such as goosebumps. It tells the parallel stories of two women named Helen in the city of Troy, New York, during a winter marked by anomalies of nature both external and internal.
H. was written and directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, who together received the Someone to Watch Award at the recent Independent Spirit Awards. They have divided their film into four Roman-numeral’d chapters, alternating between the frumpy sixtysomething couple of Helen (Robin Bartlett) and Roy Braginsky (Julian Gamble) and the chic thirty-ish artistic collaborators Helen Castro (Rebecca Dayan) and Alex (Will Janowitz). At the end of the film, characters from each thread come together.
Helen B. devotes herself to caring for the infant Henry—that is, the lifelike infant doll named Henry (when I watched the movie I had no idea that its reborn baby dolls were a real thing). She hosts a Reborn Angels club and records instructional videos for the benefit of other caretakers. Roy appears to take his wife’s, er, hobby in stride, but we find out that her neglect of him has taken a toll on the marriage. There are, however, moments of tenderness when it counts.
Helen C., whose waifishness and engagement in the avant-garde contrast with Helen B.’s solidity and domesticity, is pregnant. She and Alex have a good laugh after her dress is soiled in a “public lactation” incident during a presentation to college students (by this point we’ve experienced the at-once poignant and creepy sight of Helen B. offering her barren breast to Henry during a middle-of-the-night “feeding”). She and Alex live in a high-rise with a river view. Blow-ups of her sonograms adorn the wall like semi-abstract art.
Both couples witness strange happenings and hear weird noises. They watch news reports speculating that an exploding meteor may be the cause of power outages, odd cloud formations and the disappearance of several Troy citizens. Added to the latter are Roy and his buddy, who leave for a fishing trip and don’t return. Helen C., after hearing some bad news, is drawn towards the lake where Roy was headed. A horse appears, in literal and figurative forms. Each chapter ends with the severed head of a large stone statue—Helen of Troy, presumably—floating in the river, cheek to the water, moving from right to left across the film frame.
H. relies on clever editing manipulations and pithy reaction shots rather than on flashy special effects. Its sense of mystery sometimes drifts towards vagueness (then again, I’m not up on my Iliad so may not be getting references beyond, you know, the horse). It will appeal to puzzle lovers who don’t insist too much on narrative cohesion. Its dual Helens are compelling. Dayan, as the younger one, made me think of Rooney Mara in Side Effects—the perfectly put-together girl who unravels. But the salient performance here is that of Bartlett, who’s one of those “that guy” character actors you’ve seen a million times (she was one half of the cat-owning couple in Inside Llewyn Davis) who’s finally getting the screen time she deserves. We’re given no backstory about Helen B., and don’t know whether she’s been a mother in real life. At once feisty and vulnerable, capable and needy, this woman who’s wrapped up in feeding, bathing and diapering a facsimile baby first seems like a nutcase, but Bartlett turns her into an absurdist heroine that Samuel Beckett would have loved.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.