By Ryohei Ozaki – The Princeton Buffer – 06/13/2014
In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder outlines a myth concerning the origin of painting. A young woman, to preserve the memory of her departing lover, traces the outline of his shadow against a wall. While they are separated, the image will stand in his place; or more precisely, it will be forever linked to the woman’s memory of their relationship. That is to say, despite the illusion of permanence the image is fluid, inconstant, elusive.
Elena is the result of director Petra Costa’s exploration of memory through image, of the pains and joys of remembering something deeply intimate and yet just out of reach: the mind of a loved one. Part elegy, part essay, part documentary, and part missive, the premise is beautiful and the film has real moments of grace. Elena is difficult to categorize; but we don’t have to. Like the French avant-garde filmmakers Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais, Costa is drawn to the powerful potential of cinema as an art form rather than as a machine producing movies to fulfill preconceived genres. This means she’s interested in images, in seeing, especially as they relate to feeling and to thinking.
Costa’s belief in the magic of film is expressed early on, in the narration over a black-and-white silent film that stars Costa’s mother, an aspiring actress in Brazil in the 60s: film and acting were a way to escape, to transcend reality. Yet Costa, who draws her scenes from historical footage of political riots in Brazil and her family’s home videos, recognizes the unrelenting certainty with which a camera captures reality. Film, (or, indeed, documentary images) though relying entirely on the existence of a concrete external reality, can also be the place where dreams and memory come alive. This is Costa’s aim: to relive, in a sense, her emotionally and physically tortured older sister Elena’s life and her decision to end it, now only a memory from when the director was seven years old.
The loose through-line driving the story, if such a film can be said to have a plot, is also escape. As a teenager Elena immigrated to New York to become an actress. She arrived on her own, far from her home country. She took classes, danced, and went to auditions, speaking her daily thoughts into a voice recorder in lieu of letters to her family. Costa, despite her mother’s discouragement, does the same, following in her sister’s footsteps. The director has lived in the United States since the age of fifteen, working as an actress and filmmaker. We join Costa, in an onslaught of dreamy, impressionistic images, as she walks through the streets of New York in search of Elena, who is, of course, no longer there.
The music, mostly a current of soft melancholy songs for piano or guitar, nonetheless registers as too loud, or perhaps merely insistent. I found myself wishing sometimes that the poetic Portuguese, with its lilting music, was unaccompanied and that the dominant English narration was less monotonous and awkward. After the beginning sequence, the rest of the film is visually composed of a series of home videos interwoven with more recent footage in New York taken with a handheld camera. By the end the home videos also become a bit repetitive, though there are tender moments where Elena caresses Costa first as an infant, then a toddler, and finally a young child. The handheld footage aligns itself with Costa’s searching, contemplative gaze; several times it follows her shadow cast upon the streets of the city, recalling a ghost, a wandering spirit, or a double. These reflective moments have the potential to linger, but they are washed away, it seems, without much thought.
The film’s old and new footage converge, quite literally, to a point where the filmmaker identifies herself and is identified by others with her older sister. Their physical resemblances, their similar life paths, and, as we find out later, their shared depression are presented with a strange opacity that the viewer cannot penetrate. Elena, after all, is a deeply personal meditation. All the same, the film wants the viewer to step into Costa’s shoes, showing us postmortem documents written in cold, unfeeling medical terminology that confirm Elena’s cause of death and enumerate the physical dimensions of her corpse. In the apartment where Elena used to live, Costa films her mother reenacting the memory, splayed on the sofa the way her daughter had been when they found her. Though the scene is haunting, the editing is somewhat off, curbing our emotional response. The narration seems stilted, the grief diluted.
Costa does indeed make the film to let her grief melt away, a metaphor she manages to stage much more poignantly later on. Water and fluidity are recurring visual and poetic motifs, and create perhaps the most beautiful scene of the film where Costa, her mother, and a group of women in pale pastel dresses float peacefully in shimmering, iridescent black water. The voiceover whispers, “I drown in you, Elena.” The women do not swim; they are carried along by the natural flow of the water. Costa finds her sister in the pain of her own depression, in the empty, distant looks of her mother, in the persistent silence of her father. This moment is harrowing.
To watch Elena is to witness an act of remembering, a performance of self-reflection presented on a screen. Costa imagines film as a therapeutic act, though it seems more for herself than for the audience. We can appreciate, however, this quietly subversive, romantic belief in filmmaking as a deeply artistic exercise, as art that helps human beings cope with loss, suffering, and pain. The film is not in Elena’s memory but of it, made from her voice, her images, and her emotion, at once fleeting and eternal. Pliny’s origin myth may not have been far off in Costa’s mind: “Memory,” she says, “is made of shadow and stone.”