Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival

EDINBURGH -- An intense, downbeat psychological character study that feels infinitely closer to recent Austrian and German cinema than anything from its native Britain, “Helen” is a ponderously pretentious affair that wastes an intriguing premise not to mention Ole Birkeland’s superlative cinematography. This type of ostentatiously “artistic,” treacle-slow and monotonously repetitive enterprise t may play best to those for whom English isn’t their first language so they may not mind the stilted dialogue.

The title character (Annie Townsend) is a mousy teenager studying for her exams in a carefully unspecified English city. Helen wanders through life without a much direction. Then she’s asked by police to take part in a televised crime-reconstruction, “playing” the role of Joy, a student from her college who’s gone missing. Helen immerses herself totally in this task, spending time in the park where Joy was last seen, wearing her clothes, becoming very friendly -- and then some -- with her boyfriend and distraught parents.

This kind of identity transfer idea isn’t a new one in cinema -- variants range from the dreamlike (Altman’s “3 Women”) to the thrillers (“Single White Female”). In “Helen” first-time writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor strip the concept down to bare essentials, spinning out a wisp of story that could easily have been tackled in a short. Newcomer Townsend copes well with a very tricky role, bringing life to dialogue that’s as arch and over-planned as the picture’s strenuously elegant compositions. Indeed, pretty much everyone talks in a slightly artificial, mannered way that sounds slightly comic.

Any such comedy is probably unintentional. The film is notable for its humorlessly glacial atmosphere. “Helen” is always great to look at. Birkeland’s classily limpid imagery proves that whatever the advances in digital, you can’t beat old-fashioned 35mm celluloid.

Cast: Annie Townsend, Sandie Malia, Dennis Jobling, Sonia Saville, Danny Groenland. Screenwriters/directors: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor. Producer: Joe Lawlor. Director of photography: Ole Birkeland. Music: Dennis McNulty. Editor: Christine Molloy. Sales: Desperate Optimists, London. Production company: Desperate Optimists
No rating, 79 minutes.