Dir: Gus Van Sant. US. 2003. 81mins
In recent years Gus Van Sant's erratic career has had all the hallmarks ofan amnesiac desperately seeking clues to his true identity. He has assumedthe ill-fitting personalities of Hitchcock imitator (Psycho) and Dogme-styleexperimenter (Gerry) and even appeared to try cloning himself with a GoodWill Hunting rerun in Finding Forrester. Finally returning to the kind oflyrical, abstract material that made his reputation in the 1980s, he hasbegun to rediscover his true voice. Elephant may not be a work of greatintellectual profundity or startling insight but it is his most satisfactoryfilm in a long, long while. Admirers will release a collective sigh ofrelief and there are probably slender international arthouse pickings in anunsettling HBO venture especially given the Cannes jury's unexpectedlyemphatic seal of approval with the Palme D'Or and a Best Director prize forVan Sant.
The initial inspiration for the project came from the 1989 Alan Clarke BBC film Elephant, which attempted to reflect the unfathomable complexity of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The title stemmed from a belief that the problem was as difficult to ignore as an elephant in a living room. The problem in Van Sant's Elephant is the kind of Columbine-style high-school massacre that has become an all-too-familiar event in American society.
Elephant is not a conventional, TV-movie style recreation of one such event. It does not attempt to understand what happens, or psychoanalyse the teenagers responsible. Scenes in which the shootings occur are almost among the least interesting in the film. Instead, Van Sant tries to paint a picture of what seems like a completely inconsequential day in a US high school. Shot in Portland with actual high school students, it pieces together a dreamy mosaic of impressions and observations in the same way that an artist might assemble a collage. Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused would seem the first point of reference here.
Drifting through the school corridors and environs as if blown along on a gentle autumn breeze, Van Sant's camera captures snatches of conversation and random pieces of time. It lingers for a while before another moment catches its attention.
Slowly, we gain a sense of everyday lives in progress; a boy develops photographs in the school dark room; three girls eat the tiniest of lunches before adjourning to the toilets to part company with what they have just consumed; another boy arranges for his brother to collect his drunken father. Some find solidarity and comfort in the company of their peers, others are judged as outsiders and misfits, and suffer accordingly. A girl who refuses to wear shorts to play sport hears the hatred in the voices of the other girls. A boy is bullied in the class of an easily-distracted teacher. Both feel as if they could have strayed in from a Mike Leigh film.
The pieces of time continue to accumulate as young couples stride hand-in-hand; a dog frolics on the lawn outside; a meeting of the straight-gay alliance is in progress. It is the very essence of an ordinary day, a day in which one boy will receive a package from the website 'guns.usa'. Refusing to follow a linear path, Elephant fractures time, revisiting certain moments from different perspectives and contentedly observing the flow of events. The dialogue was mostly improvised, yet feels natural and unforced. There are hints of the ominous events that will occupy the last quarter of the film but there are only signals - a darkening of the cloud formations that Van Sant favours, a computer game in which the object appears to be human execution and a sighting of the two conspirators dressed to kill and laden with guns and explosives.
Along the way, we witness the duo watching a television documentary on Hitler and showering together in advance of their killing spree. There are the briefest clues as to what is going on inside their heads and the chilling words: 'most importantly - have fun'.
Elephant is a slight film and will test those viewers impatient for it to express something more than concern or reach some meaningful conclusions. Its intention is not to explain or reassure but to offer snapshots of American youth that put a human face to a shocking newspaper headline.
Poetic and painterly, it is more documentary than drama. The music of Beethoven sets the tone and Van Sant sculpts sound and light as he seeks to rescue moments of beauty from the clutches of unfathomable tragedy.
Prod co: HBO Films
Int'l sales: HBO Films London
Exec prods: Diane Keaton, Bill Robinson
Prod: Dany Wolf
Scr: Gus Van Sant
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Ed: Gus Van Sant
Sound des: Leslie Shatz
Main cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Timothy Bottoms