A repressed childhood trauma explodes years later into the pain of recollection for Elisa K, the eponymous protagonist of this unsettling, perfectionist and somewhat airless study of the lingering effects of child abuse. Consisting of two sharply contrasting sections, this first item to be co-helmed by husband-and-wife team Judith Colell and Jordi Cadena is effectively two mini-pics in one — the first cool and detached, the second feral and emotional. The helmers’ apparent desire to avoid easy cliches leaves “Elisa K” dramatically inert, but fest auds with a taste for accessible experimentalism will appreciate its resonance and craft. Pic won the jury prize at San Sebastian.
The first section, basically helmed by Cadena, is in black-and-white. The cool, present-tense voiceover by Ramon Madaula introduces us to 11-year-old Elisa K (Claudia Pons) and her family, including her somewhat slow-witted father (Hans Richter), apparently separated from her mother. Following a visit to a Barcelona fair with a wealthy jeweler friend (Jordi Gracia), they all sit watching television on a stifling summer afternoon, at which point the narrator suddenly announces, “Several minutes later, Elisa will be raped.”
This takes place offscreen, but when the camera returns to Elisa, her expression suggests her world has changed forever. Life continues: The children visit their mother (Lydia Zimmermann), who immediately suspects something is wrong. Unable to articulate or, it seems, even recall her experience, Elisa repeatedly mentions a silver bracelet she has been promised by her father’s friend, withdrawing further and further into herself. The only understanding comes from her schoolteacher (Pep Sais), who watches her grades suffer.
All this is lensed in crisp, coolly detached, monochrome, with mostly static images that emphasize Elisa’s isolation: The sequence surrounding the rape is beautifully judged and heavy with suspense.
Pic then leaps forward about 14 years and switches to color and handheld camerawork. Twenty-five-year-old Elisa (Aina Clotet, superb), now independent, suddenly and for no apparent reason recalls the childhood event, breaking down in a lengthy, violently physical scene of wrenching power. This is the heart of the pic, and though disturbing to watch, it’s about as cathartic for the viewer as it is for Elisa.
Thus, the film’s first half reps a clinical, case-study approach to child abuse, while the second, vibrant and color-saturated, offers an emotional, subjective reaction, with Elisa trapped somewhere in the ellipses and silences between the two representations. And there are plenty of unanswered questions — among them, the troubling issue of whether her father was aware of the abuse.
Pic seems to suggest that there exist experiences inaccessible to language, and that our reactions to child abuse are limited and inadequate. The script focuses on the effects of the trauma, and in doing so successfully sidesteps the cliches of many films that have tackled the same subject. The downside is that the causes, and indeed the specifics of what actually occurred that afternoon, remain locked inside Elisa, though the thesps playing her provide excellent studies in containment (Pons) and naked emotion (Clotet).
Lensing is fastidious, particularly during the first section, though the second offers stylistic echoes in its effective use of reflections and intense scrutiny of characters’ faces (a technique much used by Colell in 2006’s underrated “53 Winter Days”). Possible disjunctures between the two halves are further smoothed over by Pons’ and Clotet’s superb perfs. Restrained classical music is occasionally used, but atmosphere is more often generated by overheard sounds.