Petra Costa’s intensely personal love letter to her lost sister Elena is unquestionably a beautiful film. The cinematography is sumptuous, the music intoxicating, the pace languid, and a longing emotionality infuses every frame. It is also an alienating and cold film. It is cold perhaps out of necessity; a coldness forged from using the camera to work through emotions that threaten to boil over, a caution against letting a memory become a re-living of the painful past, a deliberate obtuseness that dances around details too raw to place in focus, to be spoken of directly. It is a film sat squarely in the middle distance, between letting go and moving on. It is a beautiful film, but there is nowhere to enter
the world it flits across. It alienates at every turn that threatens to open out into confession or emotional quickening, something that might bring us closer to the people we are watching beyond fragments of their memories floating by on the screen. We are invited to witness the mourning of someone we aren’t allowed to know; a fascinating but ultimately frustrating and alienating experience.
Given I saw Elena so soon after watching Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, a clear comparison presents itself. The magnitude of these stories are worlds apart, but they both deal with representing one family’s intimate past, peering behind closed doors to show something intensely personal to the world; showing in order to help make sense of it. At the start of Stories We Tell, Polley’s sister in asks jokingly “who cares about our stupid family?” It is testament to the skill of Polley as a storyteller and filmmaker that by the end, the tale of her stupid family speaks to much grander and deeper issues than the story contains. Elena lies on the other end of the spectrum. Elena Costa’s story is broadly tragic and symbolic in itself: of the desperate thrall of ambition, of the need to anchor our lives in the people around us, and of the horrible legacy of young life lost. Yet those deeply resonant notes are muted by the camera that glances away from the tragedy, and the filmmaker’s constant refrain of poeticising a story that remains only vague.
Elena tracks the most personal of memories but lays nothing bare. In taking a side-on approach to her past experiences and her present wrestling with their legacy, Costa has made a film that feels like we are uninvited voyeurs: watching her process of mourning, without any real anchor for an obliquely told story and without an open hand being played by the person whose story it is. In short, Elena feels like film as individual therapy. Beautiful therapy, but inward-looking nonetheless. And that kind of therapy is something that by definition can’t be shared, let alone in a dark room full of strangers.