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A UK region 2 DVD review of ELENA UNDONE by L.K. Weston
 
"Seldom do we get the opportunity to witness the art in love."
Tyler

 

Whether pretentious, trite or just true, this rarely seen facet of love, is the beating heart of Nicole Conn's Elena Undone. Tyler (a great Sam Harris), a filmmaker turned self-styled love guru is essentially Conn's mouthpiece, who, over the course of the film shares his many theories, chiefly being that everyone has their "twin flame" – a soulmate; a perfect match. He defines the process of these two souls meeting as 'soulemmetry.' According to the sage Tyler, true love can and does exist, even if you haven't found it yet.

The lovers in question are Elena (a wonderful Necar Zadegan), a shy pastor's wife, who stays at husband Barry's (Gary Weeks, who is probably the weakest link the casting chain) side out of duty, and Peyton (an impressive Traci Dinwiddie), a successful writer, grieving after the death of her mother and trying to get her life back on track after a bad break-up. Her life begins to change and she gradually breaks out of her tight confines. Over time, the two women grow closer and embark on an affair, unable to deny their feelings any longer. While Elena struggles to keep her family together, she confides in her long-time friend Tyler, who offers a friendly ear, entirely convinced that Elena has finally found the person she should be with, just as he has with wife Lily (Heather Howe). Peyton, on the other hand, isn't so lucky, and only has her best friend Wave (a fantastic Mary Wells, giving support and comic relief in much the same manner as Harris) telling her to step back and protect her heart, because they're both playing a dangerous game.

A balancing act of different themes and ideas, narratively speaking, Elena Undone is a complex take on romance. Conn's second feature-length film after her landmark debut, Claire of Moon, it comes after some years working successfully in different mediums; including a spin-off Claire novel, and a brief foray into documentary with Little Man (about her premature son, James). With Elena Undone, the director returns to seemingly familiar territory, exploring themes of sexual identity and emancipation, setting herself the challenge to make a film that showed two women falling in love completely, honestly and realistically, mirroring the connection she has with her partner (and co-producer) Marina Rice Bader. No mean feat when the history of cinematic lesbian romance is, shall we say, somewhat ... checkered.

As any fan of the director's work will know, she brings as much in passion to her work as she does in skill. Not content with challenges she already had in terms of narrative and economics, the director set herself one last target to reach: to make Elena Undone a part of film history, by ensuring that the film beat the record for longest kiss on celluloid; held by the Jane Wyman and Regis Toomey romantic comedy, You're in the Army Now, which lasts three minutes and six seconds. Since it forms the backbone of much of the press campaign and internet chatter, you'll probably already be aware that Conn and her actresses achieved this aim, surpassing it by eighteen seconds. Whether it's clever marketer's spin or a genuine attempt at a landmark moment in lesbian representation, because, well, why can't that record be held by two women? And yet, I'm still not sure, and if I'm honest, it flags up one of many contradictions inherent in the film.

Fittingly, given Elena's situation, it can't decide what film it wants to be.

One moment it's witty and insightful, particularly in the scenes with Peyton and Wave; clichéd and bordering on the overwrought, such as when we see flashbacks to Peyton's childhood, and encounter the gossiping busybodies that make up Barry's congregation (or indeed Barry's sermon's themselves, there's nothing subtle about them); and then, there's brief moments of inspired writing, where Conn's script expresses the positive and progressive attitudes of the teenagers within this dysfunctional group: Nash, Elena and Barry's son (Connor Kramme, particularly good throughout) and his girlfriend Tori, Tyler and Lily's daughter (Sabrina Fuster, making her screen debut). Conn's attempt to represent a spectrum of viewpoints is laudable, but the moments where the writing is considerable less inspired (typified by the most devout of Barry's flock, Millie; played by Erin Carufel, in a thankless role), it just comes off as stereotypical and clichéd. Conn clearly has an eye for what makes a good story, but that doesn't necessarily translate well into her scripts. It's an easy route to take, and at times, underlines the fact these characters are constructs in a film and are saying and doing things to make me feel certain things. However, it was also obvious they were meant to make me feel like that.

I may be witnessing the 'art' of love here, but I don't like noticing the artifice at the same time. Unless it's not already abundantly clear, Elena Undone is a film of concepts, dare I say a concept film – akin to a concept album – chief whose offender is, of course, Tyler's documentary, used as a framing device throughout the film. You'll either be won over by the stories he presents or annoyed and distracted by their presence – credit should however be given to Conn for continuing her commitment to diversity, this time in the kinds of couples represented. It could be argued that Conn is simply showing that love between people is the same, regardless of gender or sexual orientation; one of many positive statements the film puts forward. The sheer number of themes and ideas it tries to cover are essentially its biggest downfall. It's a film that feels like a lot of small ideas strung together, reinforced by the fragmentary structure, and constant reliance on fades to black. Often, it's like watching two films shoehorned into the same space. As a result, it also feels rather disjointed. At the time we should feel drawn to Elena and Peyton, we are pulled away instead. Some of the stories presented in Tyler's documentary would make good material in their own right, and it's not hard to imagine them as part of a television series, because if it's one thing this film needs, it's time. Then it could at least do justice to the myriad of plot points it sets up.

Though Elena Undone is a pretty film to look at, and certainly puts bigger budget films to shame in that regard – thanks to the HD stock and the work of cinematographer Tal Lazar and production designer Alessandro Marvelli – it begins to unravel at exactly the same Elena gives in to her feelings for Peyton. Beautifully shot though the first love scene is – sensual without being salacious, not an easy task – it doesn't exactly feel realistic. It has a soft, fluid sort of feel that should work because Elena's very much the instigator, but instead it just feels out of place (especially when contrasted to the brief one between Elena and Barry earlier on in the film). If I hadn't seen Andy and Lana Wachowski's Bound, then maybe I could just sit back and admire the prettiness, but the fact I have means I know that love scenes can and have been shot better than this one, even if they don't have the immense good fortune of Susie Bright's choreography at their disposal.

As for the much-hyped kiss? Well, we're certainly made to wait for it, but it's worth that, for the significance alone, even if the latter moments do feel slightly like an invasion of privacy, and as soon as it's over, all the energy goes out of the film with it. Perhaps then, Conn does achieve her goal of a realistic lesbian romance: is beautiful, passionate and heated in the beginning, and then slowly begins to cool down until it rather fizzles out.

It's a great shame though, since it has the potential to be so much better than it actually is.

sound and vision

A sharp and spotless HD-sourced picture with punchy contrast and warm colours that pop when they need to. The black levels are solid but do sometimes swallow some shadow detail, but for the most part this is an attractive transfer of a good looking film.

A choice between Dolby 5.1 surround and Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtracks favours the former, whose clean dialogue recording and rich reporduction of music is backed by a subtle use of the surrounds for location sound effects. The stereo track is less expansive and slightly narrower in range, and those background sounds that are so well presented on the surround track are less involving here.

extra features

These are a direct port from the Wolfe Video DVD (the film even carries the company's red howling wolf ident), so there will be no transatlantic extras envy with this one. This is a nicely presented package, with optional 5.1 sound and some great, though rather brief supplemental features.  

Each segment uses a combination of on-set footage voiceover and clips. There are of course, moments where Conn et al go into mutual appreciation mode, but that's to be expected on a small-scale production with such a personal story. To that end, there's an almost intimate feel to these segments, which makes a change from the sometimes rather soulless, slick offerings found in mainstream EPKs.

The supplements can be played individually or sequentially via the 'play all' option. As it feels like they could work perfectly well as one making-of documentary, it's an odd structure to use.  That said, if you are only interested in certain elements of the film's production, it does mean you can skip over the parts you're less drawn to, saving you a bit of time, and giving your fast-forward button a rest into the bargain.

How Elena Undone Got Started (2:12)
Director Conn discusses the origins of the project, where the idea for the story of the film arose and the role of executive producer (and Conn's life partner) Marina Rice Bader in that process, and the difficulties the cast and crew faced as they worked to get the film off the ground.

Intro: Traci and Necar (4:13)
We enter into classic talking head territory for this one. Lead actresses Traci Dinwiddie and Necar Zadegan share their thoughts on the script, their characters and their experiences during filming, intercut with footage showing them at work, with comments from the director.

More about Traci (1:46)
A small extension of the above, with Conn focussing on Dinwiddie, and what she brought to the character of Peyton and Elena as a whole. There's a lovely moment where she describes Peyton (and Dinwiddie) as a latter-day, lesbian incarnation of Emily Brontë's famed Bryonic hero, Heathcliff; a rather apt parallel.

More about Necar (2:22)
Another similar addendum, this time dedicated to Zadegan. To highlight just how versatile an actress she is, Conn shares with us different takes of the same line, showing Zadegan's different readings. A nice inclusion for any aspiring actors or those interested in the process of filmmaking.

Photo Scene (1:52)
A closer look at the photography scene with Elena behind the lens and Peyton as her subject (used during the audition process, and a test audience favourite). Conn briefly talks about the problems she encountered during filming and her thoughts on how it turned out.

Natural Chemistry (2:25)
Discussion of, as you've probably guessed, the chemistry between the two actresses, with the director commenting upon how it helped during the filming of more intimate and/or emotional material. It includes a scene which doesn't appear in the final cut of the film, and it's easy to see why Conn laments its absence.

Love Scene: The Director's Cut (7:34)
Conn discusses the creation of the film's love scene and the challenges it presented for the two lead actresses. Afterwards, as the title suggests, the love scene between Elena and Peyton is shown in full, and takes up the majority of the running time (lasting for almost six minutes).

Elena Undone Trailer (2:15)
A nicely edited sell, with a distinctly rom-com flavour, which plays up the unexpected nature of love and the idea of soulmates. It reminded me a great deal of the one for Ol Parker's romantic comedy, Imagine Me and You, and it's obviously geared to that audience.  In some ways that's a blessing, and in others it's definitely a curse.

The disc also carries a selection of trailers for other Pecadillo Pictures releases, including Ellen Seidler and Megan Siler's And Then Came Lola and Léa Pool's Lost and Delirious.

Though this DVD looks great and certainly fulfils the expected extras quota, given the film's ties to Nicole Conn's life, I think a director's commentary would've slotted in beautifully here, and really added something to it, as evidenced by the existence of that very thing on the region one release of aforementioned Imagine Me and You. A bit of a missed opportunity, since because it's only when you hear Conn talk about the project does Elena Undone really begin to elevate itself above its many contemporaries. I'd argue that with more insight, we'd also be more inclined to overlook the film's flaws and celebrate its achievements instead.

summary

Elena Undone is an ambitious but flawed film. Nicole Conn's passion for this project is clearly apparent, and for that, she can't be faulted. However, her investment in making something powerful, heartfelt and realistic means she loses sight of what could've been an infinitely superior film. Though you'll be hard-pressed to find two romantic leads better matched in skill or chemistry than Zadegan and Dinwiddie, the rest of the film is too uneven to be anywhere near as involving as it promises to be.
Elena Undone comes perilously close toward, but ultimately fails to hit the mark.  

Elena Undone

USA 2010
111 mins
director
Nicole Conn
starring
Necar Zadegan
Traci Dinwiddie
Gary Weeks
Sam Harris
Connor Kramme
Sabrina Fuster

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
How Elena Undone Got Started featurette
Lead actress intro
Character featurettes
Scene featurettes
Trailer

distributor
Peccadillo Pictures
release date
7 February 2011
review posted
7 February 2011

See all of L.K. Weston's reviews