Greek tragedies begat the theater of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance before eventually devolving into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, so is it possible for contemporary cinema ever to return to the elegant mythmaking of the Greeks? That’s not to declare that Spirit Award–winning filmmakers Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia (she’s from Lebanon, he from south Texas; they obviously live in Brooklyn) have reached timelessness in their cryptic doomsday allegory H., which might test the patience of those who demand that their narratives be neatly resolved. But their film resourcefully builds a world — a half-naturalistic, half-nightmarish mystery that evokes evergreen anxieties (motherhood, grief, being forced to change, losing your marbles) through scientifically unexplainable phenomena and slow-creeping ambiance. Introduced with a quote from Homer’s Iliad, it’s like the microbudgeted link between Under the Skin and TV’s The Leftovers.
H. begins as a low-key, two-pronged drama about Helen of Troy, except it’s the washed-out grayness of Troy, New York, where the stage is set. The retired Helen (Robin Bartlett) lives out her obsession for “reborn doll” culture — and specifically, her own lifelike, manufactured vinyl son — by posting YouTube tutorials on how to make the care of one’s make-believe baby more convincing: feeding, setting alarms at ungodly hours to nurse, changing diapers that won’t ever get soiled. Her numbly tolerant husband, Roy (Julian Gamble), quietly hides in the bathroom to nap and habitually escapes with a buddy to the bar or on fishing excursions. Has this marriage curdled from the loss of a child, or does she regret never having one?
Across town and half as young, a second Helen (Rebecca Dayan) and her partner Alex (Will Janowitz) give a pompous lecture on their success as visual performance artists, citing their frequent infighting as creative manna. She’s pregnant with his child yet antagonistically questions his commitment to her, but none of that matters after the local news reports a meteor-like explosion that triggers baffling behavior from within the ecosystem. People fall into “walking comas” en masse for hours at a time, a possible biological reaction to the shrill static that sporadically pierces the air. But then clouds form in geometric patterns, water faucets temporarily flow against the laws of gravity, and the giant head of a statue is repeatedly seen floating down the Hudson. A black horse stands spookily still or gallops by in the damnedest locales and can even become a menacing biped that steals unborn children…or maybe these are collective hallucinations.
Partly based on real-life enigmas, this idiosyncratic experiment in contemplative science fiction teases a headier connection between its human misfortunes and surreal imagery, but is there profundity hiding in the obfuscation? The younger onscreen couple’s self-seriousness may be the best clue to detect whether the filmmakers have consciously hidden vital puzzle pieces — or if it’s all formless hipster expressionism — but this critic was pleasurably lulled by the film’s downbeat rhythms, offbeat surprises, and compelling lead performances. In a society that puts more stock into action heroes than art itself, however, it’s unlikely H.‘s will be seen as the face to launch a thousand think-pieces.
Directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia
Opens April 1, Made in New York Media Center