Elephant Song, Charles Biname’s 2014 Canadian psychological thriller, arrives on VOD platforms in the UK on Monday the 13th July. And yet despite the glaring lack of theatrical release or promotion, it really is worth a watch. It’s well done, taught, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. This recommendation comes with a caveat though. More on this later.
Elephant Song was adapted from the stage play of the same name by Nicolas Billon. It arrives here having already won an award for Best Adapted Screenplay in Vancouver and was nominated for a bunch of others, for director Biname and lead actor Bruce Greenwood.
Greenwood plays Doctor Green, an independent psychiatrist called in to interview Xavier Dolan’s Michael about the disappearance of fellow psychiatrist Doctor Lawrence (Colm Feore). Michael is an intelligent but disturbed young man, the son of an opera singer, traumatised by the single meeting he had with his South African father when he was a boy. Because of this he has a developed an obsession with elephants (we find out why in bizarrely coloured flashbacks) and this becomes literally and figuratively the elephant in the room as he leads Doctor Green on a merry chase, drawing him deeper into his own psychological games amidst lies and accusations concerning Doctor Lawrence. Green finds himself caught up in these games despite the warnings of his ex-wife and nursing colleague Susan Peterson, played with a caring vulnerability by the always fantastic Catherine Keener.
Though everyone in the film is fantastic, the standout performance comes from Xavier Dolan, proving once again that there is probably nothing that he can’t do, and do very well. I must admit to having a lot of time for Dolan, particularly as a director, but he proves here that he’d be a good enough actor without his reputation. He has that wonderful mischievous grin, and a knowing smile that can very quickly turn into tears and then liven up immediately into laughter and then back to scared again – sometimes all within the same scene. Every time he and Doctor Green square off there is a menace hanging over the conversation and the back and forth between the two is great. It is in these scenes that the film’s theatrical background is apparent. There are only really a handful of locations in the film, with the majority of the action taking place either in an office where Green is being interviewed about his time with Michael, or in Lawrence’s office where the bulk of the two-hander is played out.
The film looks great too. Set in 1966, the palette is suitably cold and grey, the backgrounds almost monochrome – against which Michael’s red jumper stands out starkly. This look suits the mood perfectly, one of tension and bleak psychological interplay. It does wear a little thin after a while though, and the brief breaks into bright colour in the flashbacks seem rather more forced than meaningful.
The obvious influence here is Equus, though in that film we are shown the shocking moment that resulting in the mental break, here we only get hints. Michael tells Doctor Green about how he killed his mother (a rather clumsy reference, if deliberate) to Dolan’s award-winning 2009 film, I Killed My Mother, and even then we are never really sure whether this is a lie or not. And this uncomfortable not-knowing is all good and well, but while the tension builds, it never really goes anywhere. This is the main problem with the film – nothing really happens, and when the moment comes at the end when we are supposed to be shocked and care, it just doesn’t seem to be for any particular reason and almost makes you wonder what all the fuss was about. Though the film is not overly long (in fact it is very well paced) it does seem to waste quite a bit of its time in retrospect.
Though I imagine Elephant Song worked very well as a play, as a film it doesn’t seem to really achieve anything. Having said this though, by the time you realise that the film hasn’t been as good as it should be, or as good as it seems when you’re watching it, it’s over and it’s actually drawn you in quite well.
Elephant Song then is well acted, well made and with an intriguing premise well handled – it is however rather slight and may be a little slow for some. A good film for a quiet evening.
Director: Charles Binamé
Writer: Nicolas Billon
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Xavier Dolan, Catherine Keener
Runtime: 110 min