Sundance 2015: ‘H.’ is this year’s ‘Under the Skin’

posterH.
Written & Directed by Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia
USA | Argentina, 2014

There are dozens of striking images in the new sci-fi thriller H., and almost all of them are creepy.  Much like 2014’s evocative masterpiece Under the Skin, writer-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia aren’t interested in telling a cohesive story so much as creating an auditory and visual experience.  Frustrating and fascinating in equal measure, H. is a brilliant mindbender that cinephiles should seek out.

There are strange things afoot in the village of Troy, New York.  Objects streak across the sky, a black horse gallops through the streets, and alarming numbers of people disappear without a trace.  And, oh yes, there is an enormous head floating down the Hudson River.  H. begins with a quote from Homer’s Iliad and continues to borrow heavily from the Greek epic throughout.  Fittingly, the two main characters are both named ‘Helen.’

Old Helen of Troy (Robin Bartlett) is a woman desperate to remain useful.  She spends her days caring for a ‘reborn doll’ named Henry, and monopolizing the time of her long-suffering husband Roy (Julian Gamble).  That Roy spends hours hiding in the bathroom does little to deter Helen’s smothering efforts.  Henry, on the other hand, is so realistically-detailed that concerned policemen vandalize Helen’s car in an effort to rescue him.  She lovingly sets her alarm to feed him at 4:50AM, sometimes even “allowing” him to suckle.  Old Helen is just one of many tragic figure in H.; a woman trying to bond with people and things that have no use for her.

Young Helen of Troy (Rebecca Dayan) is an acerbic artist who works with her husband Alex (Will Janowitz) to create disturbing pictures of violence and abuse.  They share a precarious bond, prompting the pregnant Helen to wonder aloud, “How long will it take you to leave me after I have the baby?”  As events in Troy grow increasingly bizarre, Helen becomes obsessed with the health of her unborn child.  She imagines (perhaps) the throbbing heartbeat of her baby in the random static of a dilapidated radio.  Visions of grotesque, giant eggs with dead babies inside of them haunt her dreams.  Clearly, whatever is in the water in Troy, you don’t want to be drinking it.

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Cobbling together images and sounds, filmmakers Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have made a challenging film that will raise more questions than it has any intention of answering.  H. is about creating a mood, an atmosphere of paranoia and tension where nightmares co-mingle with reality.  Discordant tones and electronic tweaks are sprinkled atop elegant violin arrangements.  Greek iconography elevates small-town monotony to the level of tragedy.  The third feature from Attieh and Garcia is a sumptuous feast of imagery that confidently announces their arrival on the independent film scene.

That Attieh and Garcia also edited H. gives it a unified cinematic vision.  This is the type of filmmaking where image precedes plot; the visuals intertwine into a web that is both impenetrable and mesmerizing.  Structured more like an essay than a conventional script, complete with Roman numerals demarcating each new segment, Attieh and Garcia present us with the raw materials to create our own narrative.  We are free to re-arrange and manipulate the events as we please.

Despite their willingness to stretch conventional storytelling structures, Attieh and Garcia still pay close attention to characterization.  Both old and young Helen are richly drawn characters, each tormented by their desire to bond with something they can’t have.  There’s nothing flashy about these women; they are real people dealing with fantastical phenomena.  The dreamy haze that enshrouds Troy never obscures our view of the people below.  We might not understand everything that is happening, but we’re deeply invested in the outcome, and that has everything to do with Attieh and Garcia’s uncluttered vision.

Cinematic and daring, H. sets a high standard for sci-fi in 2015.  This is an unapologetically smart film that rewards your attention with the giddy euphoria of discovering something new.  It seduces you with an unsettling beauty, demanding that you dig deeper into its mysteries.  Let’s hope this bizarre little gem gets the attention it deserves.

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