When a film-maker tackles a subject as emotive as the Columbine school massacre, they are bound to attract some attention. While Michael Moore made all the headlines with Bowling for Columbine, his furious deconstruction of the American obsession with guns, Gus Van Sant has quietly made a powerful and original film that may come to be seen as his masterpiece.
The Palme d’Or-winning Elephant depicts the life of a high school over the short period before two students carry out a murderous assault. We are introduced to a handful of characters and follow them as they go about daily life. John’s father is a drunk, Elias takes photographs, a jock’s girlfriend might be pregnant, a painfully shy girl wears trousers in gym class. We also follow the killers, who prepare and then execute their attack.
Anything resembling conventional storytelling ends there though. The opening shot of the film, telegraph wires against an empty sky, sets the tone. The camera moves slowly or is static, the shots are extremely long and the soundtrack, apart from a recurring Beethoven theme, consists of everyday sounds, occasionally amplified in bizarre and unsettling ways.
We get so little detail about the characters that trying to ‘read’ them is futile. There are hints about the killers the bullying, the violent video games but they act throughout with a blank fatalism that also defies analysis. The chronology is deliberately fluid. We see the same scene from different points of view, without apparent reason. The final bloodbath brings no change of pace or mood, the violence mostly offscreen.
This is the film’s power. Everything is designed to destabilise normal ideas of causality, worth and resolution. The result is that the audience’s urge to assign roles, to schematise the horror, is first frustrated, then suspended. The lack of structure and differentiation means that we are forced to stop looking for reasons and simply watch.
The overall effect is profoundly moving. The action is dreamlike, the mundane invested with rare significance and, because we know what’s coming, the most routine moments become elegiac, even harrowing. Death is present throughout. If Van Sant’s purpose was to show us that in our rush to explain, we have forgotten how to see, he has made a perfect film.
Elephant may come to be seen as the triumphant marriage of content and an aesthetic explored by Van Sant in his last film, Gerry. That was a journey into the avant garde, a dull exercise in cinematic minimalism, about two boys lost in the desert and little else. But in Elephant, this pared down, saturated style, coupled with such charged subject matter, results in a kind of cinematic hyper-reality that allows the audience to suspend judgement and simply feel