Trinity College Dublin
(Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, 2008)
One of the 2009’s better received films, Helen, is a work largely funded and shot in Britain, but directed by ex-pat Dubliners Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, and with a fair degree of Irish money and amateur talent coursing through it.
It is not, however, to simply extend definitions of Irish film for the purposes of an annual review that we should fix our eyes on Helen, but rather to reflect on the continued rise of Molloy and Lawlor. Since winning the Best Short award at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2004 for the enjoyably sinister one-shot, Who Killed Brown Owl, the pair have steadily developed a unique vision and methodology. Blending amateur theatrics and socially-minded community projects with high-brow technical practise — they only shoot on 35mm cinemascope, and their shots often demand enough choreographical precision to make Busby Berkeley weep — Molloy and Lawlor can be situated in an otherwise barely inhabited film grouping, that of the “Irish auteur”.
They’d likely balk — and giggle too, one hopes — at such a suggestion but only auteurs take as much interest in methodology as this pair do. Trading under the name “Desperate Optimists”, Molloy and Lawlor, who are also a married couple, have gradually earned a reputation for experimentation and artistic adventure with a series of seven shorts,Civic Life, produced between 2003 and 2007. Funded via community projects in the UK and Ireland, the seven shorts have helped Molloy and Lawlor develop a formal approach and style — amateur casts, small budgets, an emphasis on long, meandering takes, and a narrative concern with the paradoxical contingencies of everyday life — that pays off handsomely in their feature debut Helen.
The latter has been favourably compared with Michelangelo Antonioni’s classics L’Avventura (1960) and Blow Up (1966) and shares both narrative and formal resonances with each. However, in interviews Lawlor also often points to the minimalism of Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer as an influence, while echoes of both Claude Chabrol and David Lynch, too, are plainly detectable.
Unsurprisingly, Helen was financed on the back of the success of the Civic Life series. When a number of regional arts bodies in the UK and Ireland came to Molloy and Lawlor to commission new shorts, the duo recognised an opportunity and convinced the bodies in question to pool resources in the interests of shooting a feature-length work. As part of the arrangement the team agreed to produce a short, Joy, which now serves as a prelude of sorts to Helen. Joy won prizes at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Darklight festival in Dublin in 2008, anticipating the prizes that Helen would go on to receive in 2009. Helenpicked up best film and actress awards at the important Festival Premiers Plans d’Angers, while D.O.P. Ole Birkeland deservedly claimed the Best Cinematography Award at the Dublin International Film Festival 2009.
The feature’s narrative opens with the troubling disappearance of a schoolgirl, Joy, but quickly switches focus to Helen, a classmate who — by virtue of her physical similarities to Joy — agrees to stand in for the missing girl in police reconstructions. As the narrative progresses, Helen — who has lived her young life in the care system — gradually finds herself in thrall to the biographical details of Joy’s life, and proceeds to foster strange ties with both the missing girl’s parents and her boyfriend. More pointedly, as she reaches her eighteenth birthday and prepares to leave social care, Helen is in the process of discovering — or constructing — a fresh independent identity, and the film meditates on the myriad contingencies that govern the shaping of such an identity.
In its echoes of L’Avventura, the film does not repeat that film’s most unsettling trick — Antonioni’s infamous manipulation of his audience, in which he lulls the viewer into concern for a missing female character early in the film only to make us ultimately forget about her as the narrative presses on. This latter aspect of L’Avventura was memorably described by Pascal Bonitzer as “the disappearance of the disappearance of Anna.” In Helen, however, there is no disappearance of the disappearance of Joy. Molloy and Lawlor never allow the viewer to lose sight of the missing girl. For one thing, her shell-shocked parents’ anguish is palpable and heartrending. Meanwhile, Joy haunts the film in other ways, most notably via Helen’s own growing identification with her, which comes to involve walks out to the woods where Helen confides in her departed double.
If the narrative is enigmatic then the cinematography and the camera movement are at times positively ethereal. With its long panning movements the camera oscillates between the lyrical (a drifting, relatively neutral presence that calls to mind the films of Theo Angelopoulos) and the predatory (a prowling intensity which recalls both Lynch and Michael Haneke). The mise-en-scène, meanwhile, amplifies the exceedingly modern and pristine qualities of school gyms, police offices, plush apartments, and — most notably — the architecture of public buildings. (The latter concern, one imagines, would have been a gesture toward the funding bodies themselves, who were eager, no doubt, to emphasise environmental and public works).
In the film’s lead role non-professional Annie Townsend puts in a captivating and subtle performance. Nonetheless, it’s true that some of the other amateur turns are rendered less successfully. Those reviewers, however, who rounded negatively on the acting — consumed, it seems, by a concept of cinema as offering only narrative pleasure, and apparently blind to the more profound formal possibilities of the medium — are waging a bet that verisimilitude actually matters a great deal to Molloy and Lawlor. One suspects that it does not. In keeping with theCivic Life series the film is not a product as much as it is a process. The amateur actors are core to that process, and ultimately what gets filmed is “the film”.
Similarly, though the long-take clearly appeals to Desperate Optimists as an aesthetic strategy it is also incorporated into their methodology as an expedient approach to filming. In short, it avoids the time-consuming activity of constantly setting up shots. As it turns out, the 79 minutes running time of Helen was edited together from just 300 minutes of footage. Those who are unwilling to appreciate this methodology will inevitably find some scenes protracted and some of the performances unsophisticated. Yet this would be to blind oneself to the manner in which such a sense of protraction is a key element of the film. The film is even punctuated by fades-to-black that do not offer quick transitions but instead last a pronounced period of seconds — much longer than fades ordinarily do. In short, if the film is about identity and its construction then everywhere the formal aspects of the film resonate with this theme.
That is not to say that there are not occasions when Lawlor and Molloy’s methodology does not impede the film somewhat. One scene between Helen and Danny (Danny Groenland), in particular, really would have benefited from being re-shot. Yet even here the amateur values (Groenland’s intonation is quite off-beam) carry a certain currency of “process” that imbues the film with its own unique property.
In his seminal essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” Steve Reich describes the experience of listening to “process music” — one of the most influential innovations in 20th century composition — with a visual analogy. This music, he says, involves “a process happening so slowly and gradually that listening to it resembles watching a minute hand on a watch — you can perceive it moving after you stay with it a little while.”
Perhaps such a clock-watching analogy might be opportunely borrowed here to describe the experience of viewing Helen. In everyday parlance, of course, the concept of watching a clock tick by is synonymous with an experience of insufferable boredom. But, just as it could not be said of Reich’s rich musical legacy, one could never describe Helen as boring. Rather, it unfurls before us with what is an exotic languidness, a seductive temporal drift in which every thing and every gesture is magnified tenfold, and transformed as a result.
Importantly, in slowing time down the film employs technological means — there is a beautiful, lyrical use of slow-motion in the film’s opening sequence — but most of the time it does so by dwelling on the empty intervals that pepper the protagonists’ verbal interactions. (The dialogue, it should be noted, is commonplace to the point of becoming strange or unsettling. In other places it is silly and absurd. In other places still, it is quite poignant).
This concept of “process”, meanwhile, and its echo of Reich is not totally coincidental. Helen’s score was produced by Dubliner Dennis McNulty, a conceptual artist who first came to prominence in the 1990s with experimental electronic outfit Decal, who wore their debts to Reich proudly on their sleeves. McNulty’s score darkly emboldens the narrative’s meditation on identity, via a signature theme that starkly invokes Reich’s celebrated “phasing” technique (in which at least two instruments — or recordings — simultaneously play the same notation but at contrary tempos, thus weaving in and out of one another in an alluring discord that occasionally produces tantalising harmonies).
Indeed, I would suggest that Helen in its entirety seems to question the currently popular concept of the self as the product of narrative identity, which has gained credence via the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others. Just as McNulty’s score emphasises an ineffable discord, the film too appears to ask where someone like Helen can look for narrative identity when the circumstances of her life (the unknown back-story of her parents) and her muted hopes for a future (she dreams only of the most mundane sense of home) suggest an essential disunity. As such the film charts a tension between narrative identity on the one hand and the sort of flickering episodic identity that the British philosopher Galen Strawson has recently offered as a counterweight to the predominant narrative model of self.
Finally, in terms of the film’s various Irish associations, one of the funding organisations involved the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and the Irish Film Board also financed a print for festival distribution. As a result of the DDDA’s investment, a quota of the film’s exterior photography was shot in the re-developed docklands area. This footage is knitted seamlessly into similar exterior shots filmed in Liverpool, Birmingham, and Newcastle, and it’s interesting that despite the predominance of English accents the film never explicitly states which city it is set in. Moreover, the filmed locations each stress images of re-generation, which again lends itself quite seductively to the narrative’s themes of identity construction.
There are other prominent Irish incisions into the film, not the least of them the amateur turns of Groenland as Joy’s boyfriend and Sheila Hamilton and Betty Ashe as Helen’s liaisons in the care system. Though they form only a minor aspect of the film, the general ease with which these unlikely Irish interruptions can sit within a predominately British landscape speaks perhaps to the hybridity that now weaves itself through Irish and UK identities, and in which Richard Kearney some years ago perceived the possibilities of a more positive “postnationalist” relationship between Britain and Ireland.
Meanwhile, whether Molloy and Lawlor can be triumphantly reclaimed as “Irish film-makers” or not is ultimately a peripheral point. In an interview I conducted with the pair last year Lawlor played down the significance of their ethnicity, saying he considers himself a European film-maker, while at the same time acknowledging the cumulative influence that his being Irish inevitably brings to bear on his general outlook. Molloy, more pointedly, declared that she does consider herself an Irish artist. By way of anecdotal evidence she explained that when they chose the working name Desperate Optimists back in the 1990s it was intended to playfully denote a specifically Irish meaning of the word “desperate” — i.e. denoting something shockingly bad or, in Molloy’s words, “crap”. The joke was that they were crap optimists.
Despite their being “crap” at this optimism lark, however, things continue to pull in a positive direction for Molloy and Lawlor. Most notably, they are currently developing a new feature project, Mister John, with Samson Films, the Irish production company that spawned the massive international success of Once a few years ago.