For those not lucky enough to attend the Venice Film Festival in person, the organization is kind enough, for the third year in a row, to provide a selection of films from their Orizzonti sidebar for online streaming at a small fee. One of these films is (at least until Tuesday) H., by director duo Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia. The two were among the winners of the second Biennale College initiative, which meant sponsoring for their sophomore effort, and a screening slot at the festival.
H. deals with two women, one older, one younger, but both named Helen, having to cope with a major change in their lives, brought about by a largely unexplained event to hit their hometown of Troy, N.Y. After some foreboding, there is a giant explosion in the sky above the town, possibly a meteorite. In the days that follow, strange things start to happen in and around Troy: people go missing, strange cloud formations move through the sky, and a giant floating head of Helen of Troy is found on a nearby lake. Both women are affected by the aftermath.
The older Helen (Robin Bartlett, most recently seen as Lillian Gorfein in Inside Llewyn Davis) lives with her husband Roy (Julian Gamble), and takes care of an eerily lifelike doll called a Reborn Doll as if it were an actual baby. Her husband seems to go along with this peculiar behaviour (a behaviour later shown to be shared by several older women), although he confesses to his fishing buddy that he secretly longs for a life without Helen. He gets his wish, probably, though not in the way he imagined: after the event, Roy and his friend go missing, forcing Helen to confront a big change in her life, which slowly starts spinning away from her.
The younger Helen (Rebecca Dayan) forms a performance art duo with her partner Alex (Will Janowitz). Successful and four months pregnant, her life seems to be on the upswing. She has doubts about her relationship though, and Alex’s infidelity is the source of an early dispute. When after the event she too has to face change (the foetus has vanished from her belly), it drives her to make a drastic choice.
If all of this seems rather vague, plotwise, it’s because it is. The directors make an effort to create a mysterious, pseudo sci-fi mood, not unsimilar to last year’s Upstream Color, although admittedly that film was even more of an enigma. Not a lot of what happens in H. is explained, not only the circumstances surrounding the event that puts things in motion, but also the personal actions of both central women, including the older Helen’s intriguing behaviour with the fake child before the sky explodes. Likewise, the many allusions to Greek mythology and tragedy are clearly intentional, but apart from the film being somewhat structured like a tragedy, the links are flimsy. I could be wrong, but I see no parallels to the story of the mythological Helen of Troy, and certainly not to her episode with the horse from Virgil’s Aeneid, even though a mysterious horse shows up several times. The (almost) babies the women share are a clear motif, but not found in classical sources, so it is up to guesswork to find a theory of what it all means. Your guess is as good as mine.
Which isn’t to say that H. isn’t intriguing to watch. Soundscape and musical choices, combined with calm, static shots, create a suffocating but strangely alluring atmosphere. Furthermore, Attieh and Garcia use effective editing to conjure expectations which are consistently shattered, keeping the viewers on their toes. There is certainly a pretentiousness to the film which is never completely fulfilled, but it is still an interesting watch, also because both ladies give quiet but lived-in performances. In the end, this is more for the free-associating crowd than the ones that want a solid story, but not a total waste of time if you can bear the mood.