HFilm audiences in Berlin have enjoyed two opportunities to see the film H. this year, first at the Berlinale in February and then, more recently, at the Fantasy FilmFest in August. It is a movie that does well with a second viewing as the allusions to the Helen of Troy mythology from the Iliad and The Odyssey can be distracting rather than illuminating the first time around. As the events slowly unfold on screen, filmgoers can feel as if they have wandered into a graduate school literature class without reading the assignment or even having access to the CliffsNotes version. Letting go of these concerns during a subsequent viewing allows audiences to escape a sense of frustration and enjoy the pleasures of understated storytelling within a technically sound framework. Of course, you still need to devote more mental energy than in most films, but here, one feels as if it is worth the effort even if there are elements that must be pushed to the side.

In other words, do not spend too much time wondering why the female head of an ancient Greek statue is floating down an upper New York state river.

H. tells the story of two women named Helen living in Troy, New York, whose quirky lives become downright weird after a comet passes overhead. Whether this celestial phenomenon is the cause or portent of the changes that follow is not clear. In either case, life will never be the same for either. The film is divided into four acts, alternating between the stories of the two Helens. The first act featuring our first Helen is the most successful.

Played by Robin Bartlett, this Helen is a middle-aged woman living with her husband, whose time is devoted to raising an infant that will never grow up: a Rebirth Angel doll, an incredibly lifelike toy which she treats exactly as if it were flesh and blood. Helen sets her alarm to rise each morning to prepare a bottle for Henry and, on one occasion of disturbing poignancy, to breastfeed the plastic surrogate.

Directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, working from their own script, show the surface simplicity of Helen’s life and the underlying psychological turmoil in fascinating strokes that feel complete. She and husband Roy (Julian Gamble) are every couple that ever next door or lived down the street from you, but would you ever suspect that they watch the same television program in separate rooms of the house, each shedding silent tears?

Our second Helen (Rebecca Dayan) is also married and also concerned with an infant as she is pregnant while still recovering emotionally from the discovery of her husband’s affair, who is also her partner in performance art. She asks him how long it will be after she has the child before he leaves her and then offers a guess of five years when he refuses to answer. Alex (Will Janowitz) steps outside the restaurant for a smoke at the point and sees a comet pass in the reflection of a storefront window. The marriage, the pregnancy, and the people around them are suddenly no longer the same.

The two stories carry different visual and aural styles. The tale of the younger Helen is less successful, slowing the pace of the film to a crawl at some points. While Dayan is strong, she does suffer slightly in comparison to our other Helen as Bartlett is tremendous in her performance. H. is not a film for those who like all loose ends tied by the end of the third act; it is a jigsaw puzzle with one or two key pieces missing that you must fill in yourself. The second time around, doing so is a distinct pleasure.

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