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The waters of Lethe

By Vulnavia Morbius – Krell Laboratories – 4/27/2014

ELENA (2012, directed by Petra Costa) is an example of the widening scope of the documentary. It’s a film that suggests that the word, “documentary,” is insufficient to encompass all of the kinds of non-fiction films that are being made at this moment in time. Elena is factual, true, but it’s a film that filters that factuality through a haze of memory, emotion, personal experience, and no small amount of visual poetry into a meditation on death and memory that transcends a dry recitation of facts and narrative.

In 1990, director Petra Costa’s sister left Brazil to pursue a career as an actress in New York. Elena had exhausted the opportunities for actresses in Brazil short of an unchallenging career in soap operas, which seemed to her like the death of art. In New York, she suffers from rejection and depression, which eventually spirals into a full-bore breakdown, prompting her mother to travel to New York to tend to her daughter. While she’s there, Elena commits suicide. This act has a profound effect on Petra, who was seven at the time, even as her life seems to be following in her sister’s footsteps. Elena haunts both her mother and her as Petra pursues a career in theater, goes to New York, and eventually visits psychiatrists for depression. Petra and her mother revisit the places in New York where Elena lived and died searching for some kind of catharsis or closure.

Structurally, this is a familiar kind of documentary, one that constructs its narrative from archival footage (in this case home movies and diaries) and from the testimony of the people involved. It’s smart in how it deploys these elements. This is not a talking heads movie in the least, and the archive elements aren’t presented reportorially. There are really only three points of view presented in this film: Elena’s testimony from her diaries and home movies, Petra’s narration, and their mother’s reminiscences. All of this is filmed more as memory than as testimony, and almost never as interviews. The only departure from this is a brief snippet of interview with Elena’s former boyfriend, but he vanishes almost as quickly as he appears in the stream of the film’s consciousness.

Instead, Costa uses its elements as a kind of collage or mosaic, creating a film that sometimes plays like a dream fugue. It’s an impressionist film rather than a realist one, and at the end of the film, Costa presents staged images to represent interior emotional landscapes. At this point, the film has slipped the bounds of documentary. The visuals are occasionally disorienting. Costa’s own familial resemblance to her sister tends to merge them both in the film’s narrative. This merging of personae pushes the film into the realm of the uncanny.

The film’s technique also renders New York as an alienating existential dreamscape. We don’t really get much of Brazil in this film beyond some brief accounts of Costa’s parents’ careers as radicals in the 1960s. Another version of this film might frame the story through that lens, but it is instead only of passing interest. Brazil is mostly a representation of home than a concrete place. New York is another matter. Filmed with a variety of disorienting lenses, the city is a place of menace and redemption, where one is either profoundly alone or profoundly encompassed by the press of humanity, or both.

This is an intensely personal memoir, with the director herself providing the narration for the film and appearing in its most startling images. This tends to turn the film into a tone poem rather than an essay, though I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, it sometimes feels like a dance piece. At still other times, it plays like a ghost story. Both sisters are committed artists, and that seeps through in both the form and the content of the film.

The film’s central image is of (drowned?) women floating in the water. Costa brings this image from the stage where she has played Ophelia, but she expands the metaphor to a universal experience by multiplying the women, from herself, to her mother, to a veritable cascade of other women. It’s a striking visual representation, one that sticks with the viewer as she wanders away from the film. This image feels like it taps into an archetype, and even though it starts out as a memento mori, it turns into something that feels like a catharsis, as if the water is the river Lethe, washing away the terrible burden of memory.

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