Monday 6 February 2017

On a Thousand Walls #3: Helen (2008)

While I'm firmly of the belief that you really don't need  to have a degree in media studies to appreciate a movie any more than you need training in Art History to enjoy a trip to Tate Modern, I'd be silly to pretend that some films don't require a bit more effort to engage with. It seems that some films are easy to like; in fact it's not as simple as that. We learn how to watch every kind of film, even popcorn blockbusters. But some films need you to learn a different cinematic language. Every so often, you'll see a critically aclaimed and pretty artsy film on IMDB with user reviews like this:
...the acting is terribly stilted, the film constantly uses the same slowly panning camera technique which just becomes tedious. You can see pauses where the actors are trying to recall dialogue etc.

I've got to be honest, I think all this lottery funding is continuing to lead to hopeless UK films being funded and produced. I don't know why this film would have won an award.
And that's absolutely tragic. I mean, just because a film is artsy doesn't mean it's automatically good, but there are films that have a real mark of an auteur on them, that have real technical and emotional investment and which say or attempt to say something fascinating and beautiful, and often I see user reviews for films like The Witch or Upstream Color and I think, why can't you see the good in this?

And please, please, don't get me wrong. My mother-in-law, who I adore, last night apologised to me for being uncultured because she had not been able to follow a slightly artsy crime thriller (Y Llyfrgell, for what it's worth), and I told her not to be so silly, because there's no shame in not grasping a movie. Some movies are hard to follow. Some films hide things, or imply things that you have to dig deep for and think about later (I'm still working out what I think about Berberian Sound Studio, for instance). It's not a moral failing not to get a film; you don't have to get a film. And some films, there's very little to get.  

So what I quoted above was an IMDB user review for Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor's award-winning 2008 film Helen, and I'm going to stop here and say, Helen is the sort of film that you're either going to find mesmerisingly, heartbreakingly beautiful or approximately as entertaining as watching the drying process of that magnolia emulsion you've just applied to your lounge wall. I'm going to work on the principle that the film is the former, and if you've seen it and found it the latter, I doubt anything I write here will change your mind, and that's OK. 
Joy vanishes.
Everything in Helen is slow, achingly so; most of its players are amateurs, who speak slowly, and clearly, and with perfect seriousness Peter Bradshaw, in his largely positive review in The Guardian, wrote "I can't help thinking that this is because you cannot risk letting amateurs emote. Deadpan is something they can do just as well as professionals", and I think he might have something there.

Before the credits even begin, the camera follows a girl in a leather jacket as she leaves her friends and walks across a crowded city park. We don't really see her face. She passes some playing children, walks up a bank and enters a lightly wooded area. And the next thing we see is a police search of the woods, and the discovery of the girl's personal possessions on the ground: a notebook, a bag, a yellow jacket. But the girl, Joy, has vanished. Of her they find nothing.
Search party.
The police plan a filmed reconstruction. Some comments on the film from Americans suggest to me that this is not a thing that happens so much on the other side of the Atlantic, but over here, it is quite common to film a reconstruction of the last movements of a disappeared person, or of a crime, quite soon after the fact for broadcast, and to encourage witnesses to come forward. They enlist her classmates at the local sixth-form college for the purpose, and cast a girl called Helen (Annie Townsend) as Joy.

Helen is what in the social work profession is called a LAC, a looked-after child, meaning that she lives in a residential children's home under a full care order. She holds down a Saturday job as a bedder in a local hotel. She's doing OK, but not spectacularly, at college. She's shy and quiet, and possessed of a dignified reserve that hides an intense loneliness, a sense of being somehow very lost.
For about a year, I was a support worker, working with young people in a similar position to Helen, and rewatching the film in the light of what I learned in even that brief time, It came to me that Helen is real. Young people in care and leaving care come in all sorts, as young people do in general and the only thing they have in common is that if they didn't have something lacking in their circumstances, they wouldn't be in care, and they deal with it in different ways. Helen exists.

And now she's going to stand in for Joy, a popular girl from a loving middle-class home, and she's introduced to Joy's parents and Joy's boyfriend, and unexpectedly, Helen begins to imagine what it must be like to be Joy. The parents and the boyfriend both respond to Helen with kindness and acceptance.

For the purposes of the reconstruction, Helen is given a yellow jacket just like Joy's, and she dons it, makes it her own. No one seems to mind. A Croatian girl who works with her at the hotel tells Helen the story of how she changed everything about her identity when she came here, and Helen seems to realise that this could be true for her too. 
A Saturday job.
A lazier, more obvious film would take this in one of two directions. Either it'd take the Kes route and respond to Helen's exploration of what it must be like to be Joy with a crushing refusal, a reminder that she is poor and will never be one of these people. Or it'd turn into a cuckoo-in-the-nest thriller and make Helen turn out to be psychotic and creepy and dangerous to Joy's family.

It doesn't do that. Helen in fact refuses to take the obvious route in anything.

Joy is entirely absent from the film, and yet her absence informs the narrative. She disappears just out of sight in the middle of an average provincial town (filmed on location in three cities in England and Ireland, Helen could literally be set anywhere). No one gives an explanation for her vanishing; even though foul play is the most obvious explanation, Helen leaves it open, and explicitly allows space for explanations of Joy's vanishing that are stranger or even benign.
PC Savile.
The nine-minute short film Joy that exists as a companion piece to Helen (and thank God for DVD extras) shows us the reconstruction, but in its narration from PC Savile, we are encouraged to think of other stranger reasons for a girl's disappearance. Yes, it might be foul play... but it might not be. Maybe holding on to hope is better for us.
PC Savile (voiceover): What if she knew she was going to enter the woods that back on to this park and never return? Joy might have understood that the woods are a perfect place in which to be lost. A place to surrender oneself to the unknown and the unfamiliar. 
As Helen gets to know Joy's family and boyfriend, she returns again and again to the wooded area where Joy vanished, completely unafraid, and communes with Joy, speaking to the lost girl silently. 
Joy, you probably don't know me.
Joy is gone, but Joy is here. 
Helen (voiceover): I've always wondered what it must be like to have a home to go back to, I mean a proper home, one with carpets, and family photographs on the wall. Is that what your home's like? I can just see you with your parents, sitting around a table together, having a meal, talking about college, and the future. I hope you don't mind, but I think I will go to your house. It must be very quiet and lonely without you. I have a feeling your parents will like that, very much. 
Joy is gone. She walked across this space that Helen now enters, and in the space she left behind, Helen, perhaps sensing that human nature abhors a vacuum, moves into the hole. Here is a family and a community without a girl; here is a girl without a family and a community. And of course, it's not the same, but in the interface between a lost young woman and a family that has lost a young woman, Helen finds something more.
Can I ask you something, Helen?
In the absence of explanation, the only truth that remains is that just outside the edge of our field of vision, people disappear... and reappear.

Helen isn't a film that you'd immediately look at and go "oh yeah, urban wyrd," but in its own way, it's very much about the strangeness of the space we live in, the closeness of the uncanny. Helen goes to find Joy in the woods and finds her there; Joy is in the spaces, in the woods. But Joy is gone and Helen is here.

Annie Townsend's performance as a girl who is almost pathologically shy is stunning; through the tiniest tics in her eyes, her voice, she communicates roiling depths of loneliness, sadness, hope. And the film, in its gaps, has a profound, hypnotic beauty coupled with a refusal to offer the easy answers for anything, even Helen's future.

Of course I recommend Helen, I've loved it since I first saw it about six years ago, but with the caveat that if you're impatient with slow, artsy movies that refuse to tie up a story, you're really better off not watching it. You deserve better for your time, and I think Helen deserves better too.