Savina PetkovaI7.20.2023
‘Beautiful Helen’ Review – Film as an Act of Love
George Ovashvili's multilayered but sincere movie-within-a-movie sees a woman returning home to Georgia and finding herself becoming the muse of an aging director.

“Everyone needs their beautiful Helen,” concludes the narrator of the 2022 Georgian film of the same name, directed and co-written by George (or Giorgi) Ovashvili. In it, a young woman returns home from abroad to work as an assistant to a director who has completely detached himself from his wife and family. And this “Helen” comes to symbolize artistic expression and the possibility of a shared love language between the artist and their art.

There’s an effortlessness in Ovashvili’s humor and a willingness to untangle social and personal issues, no matter the cost. But that said, Ovashvili is never didactic nor interested in pointing fingers. On the contrary, there’s a perpetual searching that drives his protagonists; a male character in a desperate state is not uncommon in Ovashvili’s films. And his features The Other Bank, Corn Island, and Khibula have all played at major European film festivals, some of them have won top awards, and others have been singled out to promote an image of exemplary European cinema at the turn of the century. These three features also, unsurprisingly, make up a trilogy—a portrait of contemporary Georgian life as it unfolds. In his fourth feature, Beautiful Helen, this perpetual searching can both lead in and out of the pit of despair.

In the script, co-written with Dutch writer Roelof Jan Minneboo, Helen (Natia Chikviladze) is often described by her friends with ephemeral qualities such as “enigmatic” and “mysterious.” She is unreachable, foreign even, and the fact that she’s just returned to her Georgian hometown after film school in the United States (much like Ovashvili himself) only makes her more unreadable.

But if the first half of the film gravitates around Helen’s elusiveness, it still provides a strong opening for the viewer to feel comfortable with her as a protagonist, even if they can’t fully understand her. Thanks to Chikviladze’s robust presence, her stature, and her chiseled face, Helen seems both real and unreal at the same time, just as her mythological namesake. In ancient times, Helen of Troy became the pretext for the Trojan War (even if it was men who should be held accountable for it), because of her infamous beauty. Today, we know better than to reduce any woman to a projection. But there is something in that idea which lends itself to fictionalization, readily so; a lot of stories can be projected upon a blank screen.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether Helen ever existed […] but it goes against our rational mind to accept that, sometimes, fiction can be better than reality.

But Ovashvili’s Helen is not exactly that. In fact, half of the film’s runtime explores her as a character of flesh and blood, with her own motivations and decisions (why she decided to come back to Georgia is still a mystery, though). And even when she becomes an assistant to a famous film director, Gabo (Dimitri Khvtisiashvili), and helps him get back to work, she is more than just a muse. She is a spark for his creative fire—but they still start on equal footing, despite the age gap between them (visibly, Gabo is twice her age). The director actively seeks out Helen’s input, she questions his choices when it comes to the script, narrative, and locations. Her inquisitiveness and occasional contrariness save her from being just another projection of “the woman behind the great man.”

In numerous sequences, their meta conversations about the script of the film-within-the-film and its characters (an elderly filmmaker and a young woman, such as themselves) are enacted playfully and toe the line between life philosophy and cynical humor. “Is this your character speaking, or is this your own attitude to life?” Helen asks Gabo when he shares more about his depressive state. Indeed, this overlap between director and character is crucial for Beautiful Helen’s narrative, but Ovashvili knows better than to just reenact a trope. Instead, he stretches it to its logical limits by constructing a plot about a filmmaker who’s having trouble writing a script about a filmmaker trying to write a script about… you guessed it! A filmmaker struggling to write.

The list goes on, and having both Gabo and Helen talk about these several layers of metanarratives is both gripping (conceptually) and tongue-in-cheek. In a way, what makes Beautiful Helen stand out as a film about filmmaking is its combination of irony towards the genre and a genuine interest in delving deep into challenging topics. The two protagonists address love and heartbreak, life and death, meaning and depression, belonging and exile—and this sincerity pushes against the admittedly gimmicky set-up of multi-layered dialogues.

Made on a shoestring budget, this seemingly small film offers a lot of food for thought. Ovashvili has placed his bets in good hands, with Chikviladze inhabiting her role with such poise and silent dignity, that any man next to her, however desperate, naturally soaks up some of her light. But is Helen real? At the end of the film, the myth is disentangled and we’re left to wonder who the film’s actual protagonist was: whether it was her, Gabo, or the two of them as one. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether Helen ever existed—both the Greek myth and the one in the film—but it goes against our rational mind to accept that, sometimes, fiction can be better than reality. This is, in a way, what film shows us best, as it works with fiction in order to create fiction anew. If only love can save you, then is “cinema” just another word for “love”?

Read our exclusive interview with director George Ovashvili here.

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