Helen is not an ordinary film. It is not an easy film. But it is a film with a great deal to say which says it sparingly in a short expanse of time. Helen is about an absense. At the heart of a film is a girl who has vanished called Joy. Joy went missing one day walking through the local park. The police decide that the best way to find her is to stage a reconstruction and hope someone has seen her since the event. They find at the local school, which Joy attended, a girl called Helen who looks like Joy, with the same frame and the same hair. They dress her in Joy's clothes and begin leisurely filming a reconstruction of what happens- we do not see much of the filming but this is in a sense the positioning which gives us our story. Helen is an odd character- she was brought up in a care home- she has no knowledge of her parents, neither do we, and no knowledge of what she is going to do. She addresses us in stilted dialogue and reveals very little of herself- save perhaps for a desire to be loved and a desire to be someone else. Slowly as she acts out Joy, talks to an imagined Joy in her head and meets people in Joy's life- Joy's boyfriend, Joy's parents- she is faced with a choice, whether to become Helen or to become Joy. The film focuses on that choice and what that choice means.
One aspect of that choice is that the two girls are interchangeable. Joy's boyfriend eventually kisses and it is implied, sleeps with Helen. Joy's parents invite Helen around to their house and help her with her mathematics and try to take an interest in her. Helen begins speaking to Joy in her head and keeps on telling us not merely her own views, but Joy's views- views which she would not neccessarily have any access to. Furthermore she starts articulating expectations of Joy's future movements- starts imagining where Joy might be- starts implying a link between the two girls. Her acceptance of her role is likewise suggestive- she stands in a line up and the film makers angle their camera like a passport camera upon the faces of various teenagers, they are all possible for the part and all look passively back at the officers- any of them could do it, Helen does and when she gets the role, she reacts with a lack of enthusiasm, a passiveness that denotes her interchangeability. A human being without interests and passions is an interchangeable item in a sea of other passive faces.
Items though is what the filmmakers think our society treats individuals as. All the figures of authority in the film are kind and condescending. A policeman at the beggining and a social worker at the end assure their 'customers' that they want them to control the process- ask us when to stop. A policewoman at the start assures her audience that the world is big but its not bad. Teachers talk about love welling up through a community. The world is filled with shiny happy people- all of whom are interchangeable. As noone is special, everyone is a cipher. To love, these figures seem not to grasp, is to particularise. You cannot be generally benevolent, you have to be specifically benevolent to be truly kind. This is perhaps most memorably seen in the film in one exchange where a teacher asks her pupils for their dreams- as soon as a pupil gives their account of their foremost ambition, the teacher moves on to the next pupil having said that the dream was good. The general rules of behaviour and sanitised conduct obscure the real relationships that we as human beings have to feel in order for our lives to have any meaning.
Helen is just a kid. So like all children- or young adults- she makes her choices at a time when her identity itself is in flux. In a sense Helen is the ultimate result of an identity less world- a world in which each person is encouraged to see themselves as a democratic unit, equal to and the same as any other person. However her particular openness to this possibility results from her lack of a family, her lack of a real background and history. She is in a sense noone- and Annie Townsend who plays her gets the sense that Helen has of tentativeness. Incidentally Townsend's performance is a very promising start in cinema- this girl has potential. What she captures in Helen is a reticence, a reluctance and a straightforwardness that lend all her responses the quality of terseness and also allows the character to grow through the story. Helen becomes more assertive as the film goes on- more willing to stand forwards. The writers have here developed a very perceptive point: that even being picked out to act as another girl in this scenario is being picked out, that in a sense it is a distinction of a kind and therefore gives the orphan confidence in herself.
The acting is spare in this film. Critics have criticised it for this as though it were a fault- Robert Bresson, a greater director and critic of film than I or any modern critic could claim to be, would demur. The actors are blank for a reason- they convey the duplicate nature of humanity and the falseness of the public emotional scenes that they are forced to play. This is a film set in public spaces- with a couple of exceptions (Helen's scenes with Joy's parents and boyfriend) the scenes are all public, a policeman and a couple after their daughter's disappearance, scenes in schools, scenes between strangers. Such public scenes are where the language of general benificence triumphs most- such are where the blank spaces of modern life, blank emotional spaces, fill gaps between our private lives. In a sense the film points us to this central fact- that our private lives mean more than our public lives. But it also points us towards the ways that the language of our public lives has become anodyne and unemotional- in a post-religious, post-ideological age all that is left is the blank faces of shiny happy people.