13 June 2024

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Fantastic Fest 2022 – Film Review – Amazing Elisa (2022)

Shot with unflinching operating theatre precision this stripped-back and surreal fantasy drama from Spain is as uncomfortable as it is unclassifiable.

Elisa is an intelligent and articulate 12-year-old who has retreated into a world of comic book superheroes after the accidental death of her mother. So much so that she has vivid delusions that she possesses powers of her own such as impunity to blades and mega-strength. This in turn has emboldened a false sense of security within Elisa that leaves her wide open to harm at the hands of others and even more troublingly herself.

Her father is understandably worried sick and as he attempts to coax her gently back to reality it is, in fact, he who becomes dragged into the chaotic orbit of her PTSD.

Meanwhile, an emotionally stagnant artist and his paraplegic wife play dangerous mind games nearby as an enigmatic embodiment of Elisa’s favourite comic book character stabs her way around the city under the protection of her savage rottweiler Dante.

Before this edgy and freaky fable is done they will all become entwined in each other’s disparaging destinies as karma ignites the toxic touchpaper of co-dependency.

Sadrac Gonzalez-Perellon‘s stark and clinical direction gives Amazing Elisa the air of a classic fairy tale that has been scrubbed and disinfected of all whimsy, leaving just the bleached bones of the spiteful skeleton these stories often cling to. The result is a discombobulated and deconstructed superhero origin story blended with a blackly comedic societal horror show that never allows the audience access to apathy or indeed their bearings.

Perellon utilises tricksy cineliteracy and the ripe ambiguity of his own screenplay to unbalance perceptions and skew expectations to stunning effect. We are never quite sure what, or indeed who is real as he pitches a succession of wicked curve balls at our sensibilities. He even goes so far as to pixelate the face of a key character to preserve narrative anonymity. A move that could be discerned as abject laziness if its fourth-wall-breaking wackiness wasn’t so goddam audacious.

Amazing Elisa is so meticulous in its minimalist construction that it transcends artistic sterility and formulates a unique ordered beauty of its own volition. The framing and fluidity of the camerawork leave the film skating on a glacial pond of otherworldliness.

The violence is not over the top, however, it is the frosty casualness of its perpetration that gives it shock value. The same goes for the sex scenes which are among the most coldly executed and emotionally distant in recent memory. Again it is the laser-guided pragmatism that leaves the fucking feeling fetishistically functional rather than erotically engaged.

Further accentuating the stoically low-key sensationalism of the piece are the universally fabulous performances from the cast.

Jana San Antonio showcases an astonishing range as the complex Elisa. She brings a physicality and confidence to the role that lends much-needed plausibility. A realist drama Hit-Girl through the cool euro-kid filter of Luc Besson is not an easy ask. But young Jana is well up for it, just as assured laying down baseball bat beatings as wincing with wounded pride with the ripping of a plaster dressing or having heated heart too hearts with her kindly but despairing dad.

Essentially, Elisa is using superhero fantasies as a gateway drug to the hellish plains of self-harm, and it’s primarily the actress’s nuanced and well-directed portrayal that keeps it heart breaking rather than exploitation-making.

Equally crucial to the film’s wonky world-building are the twisted interactions between the introspective painter Héctor and his crippled wife/muse Úrsula, played by Asier Etxeandia and Silvia Abascal respectively. There is a deliciously mischievous irony in a relationship mechanic that sees Úrsula with a voracious sexual appetite and her husband seemingly impotent when it is her that has no sensation from the waist down.

Etxeandia‘s Héctor is a believable and begrudgingly sympathetic character but it is Abascal‘s Úrsula that hogs the limelight with a majestic smackdown of bitter victim mentality. A pathologically controlling and vindictive lasagne Nazi that fires fuck bullets of infidelity like others scatter rose petals of romanticism. When Héctor retaliates in a cowardly yet highly effective manner she pushed all in on the overdose card in a scene of dazzlingly atrocious manipulation.

Perhaps the most obtuse character is that of comic heroine made real Galerista, played with ice Queen imperviousness by the aesthetically imposing Claudia Bouza. With literally no backstory to hitch a ride with it is impossible to tell for sure if she is merely a woman with the same, albeit more advanced, psychoneurotic focal point as Elisa, a slave to overzealous cosplay, or an actual super being. Decoding this caped conundrum is I suspect the master key to the film’s agenda strongbox and should produce a hotbed of debates and theories upon its wider release.

There is much more to unpack and enjoy in Amazing Elisa but that would involve spoilers and it’s an experience better savoured raw and in the moment. Suffice it to say, there are some developments you will see coming and a couple you certainly won’t. Despite its deliberate pacing, arthouse leanings, and chilly ambiance, the film is never dull as there is always a spicy portion of crazy around the corner to keep the juices flowing.

Humanising and normalising the superhero phenomena in popular culture is nothing new. M. Night Shyamalan does it in his Unbreakable universe. James Gunn similarly in the excellent Super, as does to a large extent The Boys as it presents its roster of supes as fallible and egotistically vulnerable.

Yet Amazing Elisa has more in common with Robin Williams’s character in The Fisher King in terms of taking refuge inside a fantastical world in order to anesthetise trauma. Ultimately, it is this analysis of the sanctity of coping mechanisms when they become hazardous to the practitioner and the public that sits at the core of this extraordinary movie.

It is not, nor is it trying to be, an antidote to the incessant cultural carpet bombing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What it does, with style and grown-up panache, is channel the same escapist ethos through the revenge-clouded eyes of a mentally compromised young girl.



Thriller Drama | Spain, 2022 | 104 mins | Filmax International |World Premiere, Fantastic Fest 2022, Thu, Sep 22nd | Dir. Sadrac Gonzalez-Perellon | With:Silvia Abascal, Asier Etxeandia, Ivan Massague, Jana San Antonio

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