Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Not Playing ’15: H.

It seems strange to name your town after a legendarily sacked and subsequently lost city, but the residents of Troy, New York voted to do exactly that in 1789. They must have thought it sounded more Dutch than Pompeii. Over two hundred years later, the Hudson River burg might be going the way of its classical forerunner, but the end will come through mysterious meteors than a horse. Then again, a weird equine may yet be involved in Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia’s relentlessly ambiguous H. (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s annual Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You series.

This is Troy, New York, so it must have a few Helens. There are at least two. We will meet the older, retired Helen first. She is happily married to the not so happily married Roy. Helen is the youtube video-posting leader of Troy’s circle of “reborn baby” enthusiasts, who care for their lifelike vinyl dolls as if they really were infants. It is sort of like the Tamagotchi craze, except even creepier. Roy puts up with it stoically, but he is clearly not crazy about it.

The younger Helen is the pregnant artistic and life partner of fellow performance artist Alex. Evidently having nasty fights is part of their alleged creative process. However, younger Helen is starting to realize that portends bad things for when the baby arrives. Suddenly a meteor or some such cosmic event hits Troy—and all bets are off. Reports are sketchy, but apparently many locals have fallen into somnambulist state. They felt the urge walk into the wilderness, losing consciousness in the process. Younger Helen might be susceptible to the phenomenon, just like Roy.

Attieh & Garcia’s Homeric Troy references never really add up to anything, but it is not for a lack of belaboring them. Tonally, this film is a baffling mish-mash. Frankly, it is hard to say whether older Helen’s reborn obsession is a wildly awkward distraction or necessary groundwork to make us believe, all things being equal, Roy would rather shuffle through the forest like a zombie. At least there is some lived-in credibility to their relationship. In contrast, younger Helen and Alex are nauseatingly annoying. When we first encounter them, we see a series of their photos in which they have been made up to look battered and bruised, because domestic violence is only important when it is the subject of hipster art.

It is a shame H. is so maddeningly pretentious, because some of the apocalyptic sequences are really unnerving, precisely because they are so subtly rendered. Likewise, Alex Weston’s classical-ambient themes perfectly underscore the eerie mood. Arguably, if H. were twenty-five percent more exploitative and a third less mannered, it really could have gotten somewhere.

In some ways, Attieh & Garcia just cannot reconcile the two halves of their film. Robin Bartlett and Julian Gamble are totally credible and earthily effective as Helen and Roy. Their story also ends on a fittingly ironic note. In contrast, the Helen and Alex arc is undermined by an ambitious conclusion that was clearly beyond their budget (despite the baffling Gucci sponsorship). H. should have been more like the not half bad Perfect Sense, but it is just too consumed with its own arty self-importance. A frustrating misfire, H. screens this Friday (12/11) and Sunday (12/13) at MoMA, as part of the 2015 edition of Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.