After a mysterious meteor explosion, residents of a rural area in upstate New York begin to fall into what newscasters call “spontaneously induced narcoleptic states” — and unfortunately, so will audiences — in “H.,” an atmospheric yet impenetrable low-budget twist on end-is-nigh blockbusters, enigmatically crafted by hipster filmmaking duo Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia. The first and only pic to put this critic to sleep on three separate viewings, “H.” imagines itself a cross between classic Greek tragedy and an M. Night Shyamalan creepfest, but was made in haste to qualify for the Venice Biennale’s College-Cinema Program, with the result that its many original and inspired ideas were forced into a cold, audience-alienating format. Beginning with berths at Sundance and Berlin, and boosted by an Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award, the confounding project has found widespread fest support, while commercial prospects look grim.
A giant stone head floats down the Hudson River, a black horse gallops through a downtown street, a parlor full of lonely ladies eagerly look on as an expectant mother extracts her “reborn” baby from a cardboard box. These are just some of the surreal images that appear in “H.,” whose curious sensibility repeatedly reminds that real life is weird enough without the aid of the supernatural. Each of the aforementioned details was inspired by actual news events, then filtered through the imagination of the film’s creators, who have constructed a paranormal mystery with no real solution. (For example, the disembodied statue, which reappears at the end of each of the film’s four Roman-numeraled chapters, was inspired by a 7-foot fiberglass head that washed downstream in 2013.)
Welcome to Troy, N.Y., where two women named Helen — one 60 and obsessed with ultra-lifelike vinyl “reborn dolls,” the other still in her 30s and showing signs of pregnancy — are poised to live out their own respective tragedies. The elder Helen (character actress Robin Bartlett, who played Paul Reiser’s sister on “Mad About You” back in the day) enjoys a quiet life with her retired husband, Roy (Julian Gamble), doing jigsaw puzzles and posting YouTube videos. They could hardly be more average, apart from the fact that their daily routine has been eccentrically adapted to the demands of an imaginary baby: Helen dutifully sets her alarm to awaken her at 5 a.m. every morning to nurse the doll.
By focusing first on Helen and Roy, “H.” gets off to a slow but intriguing start. The two actors convincingly play a long-married couple, offering up subtle naturalistic touches while the film open-mindedly observes their strange dynamic. The helmers show none of the freakshow bemusement Ulrich Seidl brought to his most recent documentary, “In the Basement,” in which an eccentric Austrian woman keeps reborn children boxed in storage. But they’re also slow to get the plot moving: It takes almost 20 minutes before anything out of the ordinary occurs, and almost as soon as it does (an unpleasant high-pitched tone that anticipates the meteor’s arrival), the storyline abruptly ceases and “H.” starts over with a second couple, Helen (Rebecca Dayan) and Alex (Will Janowitz), a pair of self-important performance artists semi-satirically modeled after the filmmakers themselves.
Where the first couple felt real, these two actors’ every move seems calculated and false, forcing us to realign our relationship with a narrative that’s every bit as disruptive as “Psycho” was, when Hitchcock killed off Marion Crane two reels in — only there’s nothing so exciting as a shower murder to force the transition. Here, “H.” merely abandons one threat to start another nearly half an hour into the film. Trying to get a handle on the new couple’s story, we find ourselves wondering: How long until this chapter ends? And will Helen and Roy come back? (The answer is “sort of,” since Helen returns in chapter three, while Roy has gone missing in the interim — though it’s kind of hard to care about a character’s disappearance after we’ve already come to terms with the likelihood that his story has ended.)
Directors run these sorts of risks whenever they insist on editing their own work, since an objective third-party cutter often serves to take viewer expectations enough into account, but Attieh and Garcia’s choices run unusually counter to audience engagement. Whatever interest the old married couple had to offer is nowhere to be found in Helen and Alex’s chapter, which amplifies the occurrence of unnatural — yet still within the realm of the plausible — phenomena: Helen starts lactating during a presentation, even though hospital tests reveal she might not actually be pregnant, and Alex returns from a cigarette break having sustained a bizarre eye trauma. Clouds form in geometric grids, and townsfolk inexplicably wander off into the woods.
Something weird is happening in Troy, and whether due to budgetary limitations or artistic motives (though likely a combination of both), the filmmakers have opted for an oblique approach that recalls “Signs,” where, instead of depicting spectacular events, they sit at home with relatively ordinary characters and listen to TV news reports of the strange goings-on, while their neighbors lapse into slumber. Meanwhile, the washed-out film progresses so slowly, accompanied by a low electronic score that sounds like a houseful of appliances in need of urgent repair, that viewers can be excused for drifting off themselves. Though they show no indication of understanding their own puzzle, perhaps Attieh and Garcia do have a point: If and when the apocalypse arrives, most people probably would stay at home and try to wait it out, instead of running panic-stricken through the streets like over-enthusiastic “War of the Worlds” extras. So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with torpor.