Helen is the debut feature from British directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. I remember reading the reviews for this one, which were excellent, but it was another of those blink and you will miss it art house releases so perhaps it was slightly disconcerting that I was able to pick this film up on DVD for under a fiver. Watching Helen, a couple of cinematic influences quickly surfaced including the work of American indie film maker Gus Van Sant and most significantly Italian auteur Antonioni. When a young college girl goes missing, the police reconstruct the events following up to her disappearance. Helen, one of the students at the college, is chosen to help the police retrace the last hours of the missing girl but it soon becomes clear that Helen has a dark past of her own which she is struggling to come to terms with. The merits and perils of Slow Cinema continues to form an important area of discussion for cinephiles – as proven by the recent furore generated by the articles and letters pages of the past few issues of The Sight and Sound film journal. The Hungarian Bela Tarr could rightly be credited with germinating the seeds for the Slow Cinema movement and an enigmatic film like Helen would certainly fall under such an auspice. I’m in the camp that argues Slow Cinema does not use boredom as a technique to engage the spectator but rather demands close observational analysis of the mise en scene.
Directors Molloy and Lawlor’s background are community based projects and Civic Life, a series of nine short films shot on 35mm cinemascope which were commissioned to explore the diversity of local communities in the UK, attracted critical acclaim at a number of festivals. Shot on a shoe string budget and financed through multiple commissioning partners including the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, it is surprising Helen even got a half decent distribution deal given the cultural elitism that exists towards British film makers trying to do something different or alternative. There are echoes here of Antonioni’s classic art house conundrum L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) in that the disappearance becomes a narrative conceit with which to explore personal anxieties plaguing the alienated characters. Though Helen is a British film, it is not British in terms of cinematic sensibilities and seems to reject the realist tradition for an altogether more reflexive and self conscious style. I think UK film critic Jonathan Romney was right when he said Helen is a real discovery in terms of new British cinema but let’s hope Molloy and Lawlor can get the support they need in terms of marketing, financing and distribution to develop as potentially interesting film makers.
Here's a sample of what makes Antonioni so pleasurable for fans of real cinema: