On Helena from the Wedding and Henry James

Alice Gregory | November 18th, 2010

In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James’s famous essay from 1884, he quotes himself giving advice to hypothetical young writers. To these novice storytellers, he exclaims, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” That’s wise counsel for anyone attempting to recreate human experience, especially for those attempting to saturate small events with large qualities: single words with profundity, certain musical notes with tragedy, individual gestures with empathy. Good acting, like good teeth, goes unnoticed. You usually only notice bad acting; you usually only notice bad teeth. But the acting in Joseph Infantolino’s Helena from the Wedding is some of the only I’ve ever felt to be glaring good, and it’s mostly because the characters are people who see and feel it all. Together they’re like a single, super-sensitive organism, reacting to every little interpersonal stimulus.

A group of joint-smoking, Jeep-driving yuppies heads upstate for New Year’s Eve, leaving behind children and emotional restraint alike. They’re all old friends, with the requisite traces of tacit alliances, past betrayals, and inevitable jealousies. With the unexpected arrival of Helena comes an altered air so silent it’s deafening. Her dossier is obvious: single, foreign, guileless, impossibly gorgeous, an amateur model. Such characters are easier to animate in fiction than in film; readers can imagine blinding beauty, while moviegoers are usually pleaded with to believe in it, even if they don’t see it. Of course, Helena is the least interesting of the bunch, a mere agent of unintentional destruction, but it’s worth noting just how breathtaking Gillian Jacobs (the actress who plays Helena) really is. It’s important to be convinced – visually – of her attractiveness. Like the husbands on the couch who fake-read their newspapers only so they can peer (err, leer) above the pages, I too hung on Helena’s every movement. Their infatuation comes just short of cartoonish, which is so realistic. Just short of cartoonish is exactly how we behave when we can’t help but look at someone we’re not supposed to be looking at.

The men come off particularly poorly here. Their egos are winded: dismissive of their wives, too easily seduced by Helena, envious of each others’ jobs, pathetic — secretly snorting cocaine in a parked car, wedding rings twinkle as they furiously squeak nummies. They’re the Mr. Hydes to the Dr. Jekylls of so many a J. Crew catalogue. This is the adult reality of an adolescent fantasy. Their WQXR-scored backgammon games and marled knits and liberal pours from gourd-shaped decanters are more than just authentic details, the signposts of an inevitable middle-aged aesthetic; they’re the exact attributes of the lives these people probably all predicted for themselves when they were young. But it’s the feelings you can’t predict — and the ones you wouldn’t want to even if you could — that are responsible for a toxic atmosphere that, it turns out, can’t be tempered with tasteful décor or sophisticated conversation.

Even before the movie began, the audience was braced for something like this. In lieu of previews, there was an advertisement for South Africa (the country), featuring wine tastings, mosquito netted beds, and Elizabeth Gilbert-esque elephant rides. Once the movie actually started, my companion asked where she recognized one of the actresses from, I whispered back — jokingly — that she was probably in Sideways (I’ve never seen Sideways.) A quick IMDB check on our walk home revealed, hilariously, that I was somehow right. Her name’s Jessica Hecht, and she plays Lynn, a selfish alcoholic-who-doesn’t-look-like-an-alcoholic and who can get her husband to drop everything for her with a single, vacant glance. She’s great at making herself disappear while staining the spirits of those around her.

Helena From the Wedding is free of dramatic irony. All the characters’ motives and disappointments are just as perceptible to one another as they are to us. It’s the collective transparency, surely encouraged by the remoteness of the cabin, that makes for such intense emotional claustrophobia. But this isn’t The Ice Storm. Despite the outdoor chilliness, there’s a warmth to Helena from the Wedding; the human connections are, if anything, too strong. The way certain characters temporarily pair off — to take a walk, to blow a line, to talk about work in the kitchen — cleaves individuals to individuals, but it’s all in the service of the ensemble chemistry. And it’s the kind of film where nothing truly terrible is ever going to happen. The plot is laced with potential disaster: hard drugs, manic men on the banks of freezing rivers, a tipsy pregnant woman driving a borrowed SUV. But as in life, catastrophes only happen to other people, until they happen to us.

The script is natural and charming, but not too witty. The best lines come when absent acquaintances are invoked: “Melissa is not the greatest thing since sliced cheese.” And later: “Every time I get in my Porsche, I think of Nick.” And even though one of our central characters is a playwright, it’s not the dialogue here that’s so important. There’s personal history in each movement and the implication of private memory in the way each character delivers each line. The closing scene focuses on Alex and Alice, our hosts, whose marriage — like all the others — has been intruded upon by Helena. Their bond, once bright and tight, has withered over the course of the film. In this final glimpse of them, we sense just how much generosity can be imbued a single smile, but also how burdensome it can be when the other person doesn’t quite feel that smile back. Everyone’s a grownup here and accountable now for more just his or her own emotions, but they’re slipping, and they feel it. Nothin’ is lost on nobody.