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Since Aristotle analysed story 2,500 years ago, numerous thinkers, scientists and artists have contemplated the mysterious power of narrative. 

Just as we seek images of faces in clouds or ink blots, humans are hardwired to seek out stories in random events. It’s a quest that sets our species apart, is common to every culture, is used by politicians, celebrities, parents, lovers and brands to connect us to each other and it’s what propelled Elena Petitti Di Roreto into filmmaking.

I was using the editing as a creative way to make narrative – after that it was natural to move into directing.

“I was taking footage during photoshoots,” she says, “but it was without narrative, it didn’t mean anything, it was about style and sound and voiceover. But when I was editing the footage, I started to look for meaning, I was using the editing as a creative way to make narrative – after that it was natural to move into directing.”

Her first role in the industry was as an editor. After studying media design in Milan’s New Academy of Fine Arts, film studies at New York’s Pratt Institute and creative direction for fashion at the London College of Fashion, she started working as an editor at Milan-based production company Collateral Films

In just one year she was made art director and then three years ago decided to go freelance as a director. 

Above: Elena Petitti di Roreto on set.


After a couple of years her work caught the attention of Epoch Films partner and director Martin de Thurah who became her champion. “It was kind of crazy,” Petitti recalls, “he messaged me on Instagram and complimented me on a job and we started chatting.” He invited her to Denmark then introduced her to Epoch EP Mindy Goldberg at Cannes and signed with Epoch in the US later in the year. She’s now also signed with Anonymous [link to shots news. ] for UK repping.  

De Thurah had noted how Petitti’s editing background aided her skill in visual storytelling. She can open a film with such a profound sense of intrigue that within a few frames you’re aching to know what the story is. 

Her Vogue Italia/RayBan film Love Me starts with a long take of the back of a young man’s head as he lopes along a corridor. The muffled strains of Gene Vincent singing Be bop a lula float out from somewhere in the building. 

Our hero heads towards the music; but something is lurking around the corner. The sound alters; discordant, metallic, scraping sounds overlay the rock ’n’ roll, presaging something eerie up ahead, a common sensation in Petitti’s films. As he approaches we see –just for a fraction of a second – a couple kissing; but the girl is obscured; the screen blacks. Then we glimpse her – in flashback or a memory, this time our hero is kissing her. 

Vogue Italia – Ray Ban - Love Me

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These near subliminal scenes – the ‘did I just see that?’ sensation, unsettles and invites you to watch and rewatch her work. The story progresses, into the past? The future? We’re not quite sure, but it all ends in sweetness. 

She has a knack of blending a languid, sensual sweetness, with an underlying sense of simmering spookiness. I ask her about her apparent interest in necks. Models frequently arch them; vampiric, the camera lingers on vulnerable white flesh. “I’ve never thought about it,” she says, “It must be instinct. I see the neck as a very sexy part of the body and the pulling back of the head as reaching a state of ecstasy, that is probably what I am trying to express.”

 I want to portray something that cannot happen, something magical and impossible – this is the magic of film for me, you can make someone fly – but I want to aim for something real as well. I want to blend the possible and impossible.

There is a somnambulist almost deathly vibe about many of her characters. In another Vogue Italia film, Through My Eyes, Hammer horror style instrumentals build the unease as the camera leads us slowly round a corner to find a girl lying motionless on a pool table. 

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Above: Stills from Through My Eyes.


In last year’s Let It Pour, for Vogue Italia/Swarovski, Petitti moved further towards the horror genre with a story of a girl, played by the luminous Tia Jonsson, lured into the woods by a slightly supernatural coven of young women to perform in a ritual call for rain. Night falls and Jonsson ends up levitating into the trees – an apparent sacrificial lamb – her neck arched back. 

She is flattered when I compare her work to David Lynch. “I take that as a compliment,” she laughs, going on to tell me that, fittingly, she grew up in the “Twin Peaks of the Alps – a very small town next to Switzerland”. 

I like to do stuff that is very tactile, I like to feel stuff, I don’t really want to describe something from the outside through film, I want to be inside it, with the sound, or with close up. If I feel it inside it makes sense to me.

Subtitled a ‘girly response to desertification and drought’, Let It Pour was the second commission from Vogue Italia on the theme of sustainability and global warming. The first was Allegory of Water, another example of her skill at storytelling when not much appears to be going on. It opens close on a woman’s eyes, there are watery seaside sounds, as the camera tantalizes, pulling back slowly to reveal a beauty in a Botticelli Venus pose, standing on a rubbish heap. 

Vogue Italia – Allegory Of Water

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It was inspired by Jan Breughel’s allegories of the four elements: earth; fire; air and water, in the early 1600s. “In his Alegory of Water, you have a goddess and around her nature is flourishing. I was thinking about nature now, what we are living in… we are basically living in a dumpster.”

Petitti notes how forward thinking Vogue Italia were in embracing an environmental theme;  “everyone is doing that now, but then [in fashion] there wasn’t so much focus on it.” She didn’t want to make something that was obviously virtue signalling, “ it can be hard to get the right tone.” Her subtle, oblique approach paid off – the film won Best New Italian Fashion Film in the Milano Fashion Film 2018. 

I don’t work with actors, I tried a couple of times but I hated it. They try to give you something that is not themselves, whereas models, they are just kids, they just do what they would do normally.

At 31 she seems young to have developed such a distinct style. I ask her how she would describe it. “I don’t know, it’s a tricky for someone who works with images to try to translate it into words.” Helpfully, she gives it a go… “I want to portray something that cannot happen, something magical and impossible – this is the magic of film for me, you can make someone fly – but I want to aim for something real as well. I want to blend the possible and impossible.” 

Above: A still from Allegory of Water.


With storylines that are often fantastical, her pursuit of the naturalistic is largely to be found in the performances. It surprising to hear that none of the models she uses have acting training. “I don’t work with actors, I tried a couple of times but I hated it. They try to give you something that is not themselves, whereas models, they are just kids, they just do what they would do normally. So if they are shy, and you ask them to dance, they are going to dance in shy way. That is why casting is so important – you are not casting a performer but a real person.”  

Even if a model produces something that wasn’t what she’d originally had in mind, she’s happy as long as the result feels ‘real’. 

She seems to rely a lot on instinct, using feelings to convey story and meaning.  “I like to do stuff that is very tactile, I like to feel stuff, I don’t really want to describe something from the outside through film, I want to be inside it, with the sound, or with close up. If I feel it inside it makes sense to me.”

It’s about doing something affirmative for yourself, in a magical fairytale way.

Such statements may seem esoteric but somehow make sense when you watch her work. In Through My Eyes, there seems to be meaning aplenty in the imagery, textures, sound and style of the film, but there is a strong story too. The brief from Vogue Italia was simply the title and to use clothes from Alberta Ferretti and La Perla. “The clothes were highly decorated, to me they looked like decorations on an animal. Like the tail of a beautiful fish.” 

She developed the story of a girl fascinated by the fish, who dreams of floating underwater, the sounds are liquidy, submerged. She seems to be having surgery, is it a horror film? Is she mad? Turns out she’s having gills fitted. “I liked the idea of a positive twist on plastic surgery. Not something creepy. So it’s about doing something affirmative for yourself, in a magical fairytale way.”

Vogue Italia – Through My Eyes

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The director credit on the film is Melany, a pseudonym for her partnership with her DP Mauro Chiarello. They made a few films together and she relishes close collaborative relationships. Another is with editor Francesco Roma who she worked with at Collateral and with whom she often creates the sound design. “Sound is very important to me. Francesco and I really enjoy working together on the sound, some of the music we even make ourselves.”

I arrive on set with every shot planned. I do my shooting list myself, I’m very obsessive about it.

Though she has a penchant for going with her instinct and feelings, there is nothing haphazard about her working methods as a filmmaker. “I am very OCD and prepared. I arrive on set with every shot planned. I do my shooting list myself, I’m very obsessive about it. But then, when in the shoot, I just let things happen. I like to be prepared, but then to fuck it up… I mean to change it.”

In Through My Eyes, the elegance, stately home setting and still life put one in mind of Peter Greenaway. And of course there is Lynch, but what other influences inspire her? “Well I am Italian, so I grew up seeing art everywhere, and I am very linked to that art. I am moved by beautiful paintings, that is why I always feel an urge to pay a tribute to them, because this is my heritage, it is where I come from.” 

Vogue Italia – Let It Pour

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Growing up just an hour from Milan, as a child she was often taken to galleries, and to the opera. The city of also informed her interest in fashion.  As her work suggests, she applauds any efforts by the fashion industry to address issues of sustainability, but what of other issues, such as sexual politics? “In terms of equality, homosexuality or body differences, I think the world of fashion is open to new things. There is more diversity among those working in fashion that people realise.”

 Vogue Italia are really trusting. They give you freedom to express yourself.

But what she mainly appreciates about the industry is the creative freedom it affords. “Many photographers and artists are drawn to fashion because it allows you to be more expressive. With editorial stuff they really want your vision and are up for listening about your ideas, so it’s a good place to start your career.” 

She praises Vogue Italia in particular for their willingness to trust her; “I tried to work with other fashion magazines, but want more control. Vogue Italia are really trusting. They give you freedom to express yourself, to experiment. With them I feel you’re allowed to really fly.”

Hennessy – Repeat the Unrepeatable

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She notes that though there is more money in advertising in general there can be more restrictions than in fashion film. However, her first foray into advertising, Repeat the Unrepeatable for Hennessy, her first out of Epoch Films, was a positive experience. 

“I was so lucky to work with Droga5, they are so creative. I tried to put something of myself in the film, so the closest thing to my aesthetic is the rain coming into the room, again that is impossible, fantastical. The brief was something about how the cognac is made, so we wanted to imply something magical. I wanted to add something about the experience, the feeling associated with it.

Recently signed to Anonymous Content for UK representation, Petitti has also just completed her second ad with Droga5, for Harley-Davidson, but wasn’t allowed to go into detail when we talk: “I’m very happy with it, it's Droga5 again and I’m so grateful they had the courage to give me a commercial when I’m still building my career.” 

We are sure their courage will have borne the most strange and wonderful fruit.  

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