Petra Costa was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Her mother always told her she could do anything she wanted, except acting, and that she could live anywhere she wanted, except New York. Costa began acting at fifteen. She studied anthropology and theatre at New York’s Columbia University. Elena, Costa’s heartbreaking and gorgeous feature debut, begins with woozy nocturnal views of New York. Over these images we hear Costa’s voice. “Elena,” she says, “I had a dream of you last night…” In this dream Elena, Costa’s sister, is atop a wall, tangled in electrical wires. But soon the one being dreamed of becomes confused with the dreamer. It is the dreamer who is now atop the wall. She touches the wires, receives a shock, falls, and dies.
This is the story of two women, one an elusive ghost, the other trying to find this ghost, to know her—and, for a long time, very much in danger of becoming her. (Make that three women: Costa’s mother also plays a pivotal role in the lives of both Elena and Petra, and in the narrative conveyed in this film.) Elena is a lyrical memoir of devastating loss and fortifying self-knowledge. Elena was Costa’s big sister, already entering her early teens when Costa was born. Elena wanted to act and sing, to live only for art, but also to go beyond the theatre and break into movies. She moved to New York to realize this. But Elena’s promise was thwarted by her own paralyzing despair and unreasonable expectations and prescription drugs. Petra, too, would grow up to act, sing, make art, go to New York, all the while struggling not to succumb to precisely the same demons that consumed her sister.
Elena received her first camcorder at 13 and, out of her desire to hone her creativity, and out of her perfectly healthy, even endearing adolescent vanity, immediately set about creating a trove of home movies—movies that, unbeknownst to her, would, along with other remarkable archival materials, become the foundation of this film haunted by her and named in her memory. Costa weaves together all this found footage with her own beguiling, at times astonishing images of water and drifting female bodies resembling Ophelia multiplied; of herself looking lost in a vast city; of interviews with those closest to Elena; and with the poignant use of the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Dedicated to the One I Love.’ Occasionally these sequences overreach in their desire to attain poetics and meaningful gesture, but what could be better to desire? Elena is drenched in much sadness. It’s an abyss of grief and terror alleviated only by mere hints at self-realization (the biggest of those hints being the very existence of this film), but it also flows with tremendous beauty—beauty and fluidity are Costa’s key sources of consolation. The film is so intrinsically personal that it’s difficult to imagine what Costa might do next, but I can’t wait to find out.