Elephant Song, 2015.
Directed by Charles Binamé.
Starring Bruce Greenwood, Xavier Dolana and Catherine Keener.
A psychiatrist, a patient and a nurse become embroiled in a day of mind games over the disappearance of a doctor.
Open. Over-exposure. Sandy colour palette. Somewhere hot. A woman sings opera, shot with a floating, dreamlike camera. The sound subtly reverberates. A boy runs up to her.
Right. So it’s going to be one of those movies. That was the flashback. The present is clearer, nowhere near as blurry and impressionistic, colder with blues and whites and greys. Now we’re in a psychiatry hospital.
Why we are, exactly, takes 15 minutes to transpire. It’s an awkward opening quarter-hour. There’s not much in the way of obvious plot. The characters are initially chilly. There’s that cliché-ridden opening flashback. One scene has Michael (Xavier Dolan), the young boy in the opening segment now grown up, talk at annoying length on the evolutionary perks of elephants. The film barely cuts out of a psychiatrist’s office. We’re stuck here.
But then – and this is a transition that applies to Michael as much as the movie itself – the chess pieces of plot and character slowly move into place. As both develop, they become increasingly more engaging. Dr. Lawrence went missing yesterday during Michael’s session. Now Dr. Green (Bruce Greenwood) is questioning Michael as to where his colleague might be. It’s a whodunnit.
It’s also adapted from a play, a lineage obvious in the film’s staging and script (almost entirely between three characters in one room). Like Roman Polanski’s Carnage or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, the theatrical roots reach out through the dialogue. The pacing is tight; the lines zing. Status dynamics ebb and flow with craftmanship.
Greenwood and Catherine Keener (as Nurse Susan Peterson) put in very solid performances, but the movie is Dolan’s. He’s got all the meat. The former two are suppressed, white-middle class sorts. Michael has a tortured past and suggested history of abuse. Once your eye adjusts to his character, like shapes slowly materialising in the dark, you appreciate those opening 15 minutes weren’t bad at all. It’s just all the good objects were left hidden in the black.
Elephant Song’sdirection, however, works against this all. Amateurish, ill-judged close-ups of Michael staring down a fish. The aforementioned, visually cliché flashback. The persistent faux-impressionistic, blurry shots. The direction tries to manoeuvre alongside the movie’s script and performances. It does so clumsily and half-drunk on pretension.
But that’s cosmetic. Dolan’s performance is superb. The script is as sharp as any other ‘play-set-in-one-room-adapted-as-a-film’. Seek it out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★