The light outside the window bleeds into the asylum, but it’s only a glimmer. The hope remains on the other side of the pane; its glow enlightening the entrapping interior. Every character in Elephant Song is incarcerated in a mental institution, some doctors, others patients, yet the thing that unites them is that on this cold Christmas day there is the unshakable feeling that past trauma is returning. This year, they aren’t spending the holiday inside their warm homes. Instead, they’re investigating a doctor’s disappearance as well as their inner selves.
Dr. Lawrence has vanished and the head of the hospital, Dr. Green, interrogates a manipulative patient named Michael, who may know the missing doctor’s whereabouts. The patient suffers from an undisclosed mental disability yet he is clearly intelligent, thoughtful and capable of pushing buttons to get what he wants. Michael complies and agrees with Dr. Green to give pieces of information in exchange for different things that are hidden in Dr. Lawrence’s office, namely a stuffed elephant and three pieces of chocolate. As the mystery slowly unfolds, it’s clear that the patient is aware of Dr. Green’s past and is using it to get to an undisclosed goal.
Dr. Green was married to Nurse Peterson, but they separated after the death of their child. The pair work together, but try to ignore each other’s presence. It’s easier that way, especially since Dr. Green is remarried and holds a grudge against his ex-wife because she was unable to stop their daughter from drowning in a lake.
Michael, meanwhile, is the only one with a past that remains hidden. We know he’s a deep thinker and that his mother was a wealthy opera singer, but it’s difficult to understand how he has ended up as a patient at the mental institution. He often displays immature and sporadic behaviour, but this seems to be a result of cabin fever and a hellish childhood, not a psychological disorder.
Throughout the narrative there is a parallel between the past and present, which is expressed more than just through the obvious structure of the flashback storytelling. The hospital’s track record for sexual abuse returns in the form of Michael’s allegations towards Dr. Lawrence, and Dr. Green and Nurse Peterson’s daughter’s death is connected to something that happens to Michael in the climax. What happened to Michael’s mother also mirrors what eventually happens to him during the interrogation (think of the opera singer’s three false notes and his demanding of three chocolates).
The central mystery and conflict at the heart of the film, between doctor and patient, is what makes Elephant Song so entertaining and even a little funny. The irony is that Dr. Green, the investigator, should be the cat, yet Michael makes him run in circles like a mouse. The patient makes up stories and deals with the doctor by exchanging information backed by different hidden objects in the room. Most of the film takes place in this one setting, yet it never becomes dull, and that’s thanks to a layered story and magnetic performances.
The wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who is better known for directing films like Mommy and I Killed My Mother, plays Michael the same way he directs: radically over the top and without restraint. Like most of his films, the grotesquery works because of the sharp dialogue, fascinating characters, and deep stories. However, without Bruce Greenwood’s quietly magnetic performance as Dolan’s foil, which earned him a nomination at the Canadian Screen Awards, the film could have easily felt tonally unwieldy and far too much.
Elephant Song has been adapted by Charles Binamé from an original play by Nicolas Billon Unfortunately, this means many critics will call it “theatrical” or “stilted” simply because of its minimalistic setting. Admittedly, its style is mostly comprised of dialogue done with shot reverse shot continuity editing, and the framing or camera movement does not intrigue. That being said, none of this really matters because what separates Elephant Song from the proscenium is the use of poignant close-ups on the actors’ faces, which make the story feel cinematic even if most of it is contained to one room.
Another notable cinematic element is the aesthetic payoff for the white light that bleeds through the windows of the mental hospital. In the final shot, two characters leave the hospital and are surrounded by the hopefulness of Christmas, family, and the white light from the reflection off the snow. The cycle of the reoccurring past is broken, and the characters leave the confinement of the hospital.
Elephant Song was one of the best Canadian films on the festival circuit last year. It’s memorable and entertaining not only because of its profound story, but also thanks to a pair of excellent performances from two leads who are doing some of the best work of their career.
Elephant Song is a twisty and unpredictable film that has poignancy and depth thanks to a layered story that's executed brilliantly by the two leads.