Black-Magic Realism: H. Stages an Almost-Apocalypse in Upstate New York

Directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia
April 1-7 at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s previous two films, Ok, Enough, Goodbye and Recommended By Enrique, were shot in Tripoli (where she’s from) and south Texas (where he’s from). For their third feature, funded by a Venice Film Festival grant, they decamp to—where else?—Troy, New York, a wintry Rust Belt-retro location which is, in the broody, assured and resourceful H., gradually overtaken by an elliptical almost-apocalypse that manifests as dimly remembered myths: water leaks, mysteriously shattering glass, and then memory wipes, disappearances.

Attieh and Garcia follows two couples, representing creaky-joint union-hall shot-and-beer Troy, and Troy the gentrifying upstate coffee-shop college town. Helen and Roy (Robin Bartlett and Julian Gamble), seemingly early into their retirement, do puzzles in an underlit row-house living room, and cry at the same tv show while watching on different sets. Aside from the American Sniper-bettering realism of Helen’s puckered-vinyl “Reborn Doll” (named Henry), which she wakes up at night to feed, and shows off to other empty-nesters at her regular Reborn Doll owner groups, H. takes its time turning ominous: it’s not until about 20 minutes in that a bright light in the sky arrives to cast a retroactive portent over the proceedings. It’s then that we switch to Helen and Alex (Rebecca Dayan and Will Janowitz), artistic and romantic partners in their early 30s whose creative sparring and conscientious grant hustling may mirror the filmmakers’, and whose experience with the subsequent rolling blackouts and glitching electronics is additionally fraught by Helen’s pregnancy.

That H. gives us two “Helens of Troy,” and begins with a quote from Homer’s Iliad, is a bit of a tease, encouraging us to scour the film for a deep metaphoric structure that remains deliberately elusive. The low-budget signs and wonders that befall this Troy have an automatic-writing uncanniness: a riderless black horse wandering the woods outside of town, clouds falling into perfectly spaced-out grids in VFX shots with a Magritte-like wit. The chief special effect is the redoubtable local news team, doggedly reporting on the spate of “waking comas,” abandoned vehicles, and lost souls wandering off from their vehicles and families without a trace.

To the extent that H.’s black-magic realism coheres, it’s around the womb, as structuring absence or presence—its barrenness or expectancy suggests an anxiety that gives the film a continuity on emotional if not symbolic terms. So it’s fitting that the film’s strongest asset is the performances of Dayan as young Helen, self-consciously stricken with depression, and especially Bartlett, bracingly specific about the older Helen’s descent into prickly delusion—she seems very much like the kind of old lady who’d yell at you in a supermarket.

H.’s sound design renders in aural terms the characters’ dislocation, which also comes through in the occasionally dueling music themes provided by multiple composers. The actual shock and dramatic catharsis of social breakdown is sparse, paced out across long shots and playing out frequently on faces, and structurally over the course of several overlapping chapters. H. feels both grounded and deliberate, always anticipatory, aware of how it’s doing what it’s doing even as the why remains a mystery, and on those terms it’s successful, even as its self-sustaining logic is more trance-state in tempo than your usual wtf fare.


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