[…] The filmmaker embodies and thereby reanimates Elena. It is in this way her camera enables us access to reality without entirely carving out the insides of the first person…
[…] The billowing female bodies that frame the text may be Ophelias but we find no direct utterance of Shakespeare, and therefore cannot make that claim. Instead, we recognise classical tragedy in the lived experience. Through the integration of the autobiographical into fiction, we are taken back to a beginning.
Fredric Jameson characterised the term “postmodernism” in 1991 as the «loss of historicity, a lack of depth and meaningfulness and a waning of emotional affect». Ever since critics have watched the cultural movement lose relevance with the fall of the Berlin wall, the new millennium, the so-called “War on Terror” ushering in a new era. We don’t fully have a term for this as art seems to encompass both elements of realism yet scepticism for the “real” or what pertains to the real. The author is still dead, we are still in drag and the centre is still lost, yet we are no longer operating on an absolutely sincere or highly ironic metatextual mode. Addressing the radical cultural shifts underway since 2016, some commentators have chosen the word “post-truth” as paradigmatic of the world since Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, etc.
If we are post-truth, doesn’t this negate filmmaking’s place in reality? Do we still believe the camera is a means of gaining access to the real when images are being corrupted day after day for political gain? In this world of unstable truths, disillusioned neo-liberal promises and uneven capitalist gain, the autofiction has taken hold. It struggles against panorama, against entirety, against speaking for the collective and against agenda becoming the most political of all forms. Chantal Akerman and Lourdes Portillo are artists who come to mind with this moment. Only the self can provide any ultimate point of reference.
That is why I start this review of Petra Costa’s 2015 Elena with a rejection of its negative reviews. Various online commentators have deemed the film too close, too personal, too abstract, too private. The film is very tight; indeed, it dances through an archive of home video tapes recounting the life and death of her older sister. The past is recounted through the specifics: facial expressions, fashion trends, seasonal change - details that have no claim to history but drop us off at points along a character’s trajectory.
On top of this is a fragmented voiceover that recalls Petra’s memories of herself and her sister. It ranges from recounting a fascination with mermaids to reading out the filmmaker’s psychiatric report from when she was aged seven. In some parts the images determine the voiceover, in other parts the voiceover determines the images and occasionally there is no given relation: it is up to us to decide. The recent imagery mostly constructs an over the shoulder narrative of the filmmaker meandering through the streets of New York City. A stream of consciousness style brings us very close to her train of thought, though this is undermined by the use of the second person. We are told the sisters, both performers, uncannily resemble each other. The filmmaker embodies and thereby reanimates Elena. It is in this way her camera enables us access to reality without entirely carving out the insides of the first person.
The preface (and post-script) to the film is a blouse billowing in water. I would like to argue that the post-post-modernist autofiction creates this wonderful moment that I sometimes witness in my life too. Unlike its precedents, the post-post-modernists do not make explicit cross-references to other texts. The author is dead but so is intertextuality. The billowing female bodies that frame the text may be Ophelias but we find no direct utterance of Shakespeare, and therefore cannot make that claim. Instead, we recognise classical tragedy in the lived experience. Through the integration of the autobiographical into fiction, we are taken back to a beginning. The uncanniness of reality’s representation of the fictional elevates it to more than just a reproduction or performance. It contains a sincerity of expression, a certain originality. I think this is a beautiful means by which to dovetail the film.
Text: Laura Davis
First published: May 06, 2020
Elena | Film | Petra Costa | BRA 2012 | 82’ | Visions du Réel 2020