Culture & Conversation

Elephant Song is one to forget

Xavier Dolan and Bruce Greenwood play cat and mouse in Elephant Song

Xavier Dolan and Bruce Greenwood play cat and mouse in Elephant Song

The release of Elephant Song was a highly anticipated moment for Canadian cinema. It’s directed by the Montreal-raised Charles Binamé and adapted from a play by Canadian Nicolas Billon (also the screenwriter). It stars Xavier Dolan, who has by now established himself as Canadian cinema’s enfant prodige, and has Bruce Greenwood, another Canadian actor with international credit, in the supporting role.

The trailer must have immediately attracted every Canadian cinephile, not least because of Dolan’s unexpected leading role in an English film that he did not himself direct.

As a Dolan fan myself, I went in ready to be blown away, anticipating fantastic performances, cutting-edge cinematography, and beautiful, genuine and lateral dialogue. All the things, in fact, you’d associate with Dolan.

Don’t get your hopes up. Elephant Song is anything but subtle.

Set in a 1960’s mental hospital, it mostly takes place in the office of a psychiatrist who has just gone missing. Dr. Toby Green (Greenwood) is called in to interrogate the last person to have interacted with the missing doctor, young patient Michael Aleen (Dolan).  Nurse Peterson (Catherine Keener) warns Dr. Green of Michael’s manipulative tendencies, but he insists on questioning him anyway because he suspects he is hiding information. What follows is a protracted series of mind games concocted by Michael, who feels suffocated by the limitations of the hospital and craves the attention.

In modern television parlance, a “bottle episode” is one where all the events take place in one same space (generally to save money on location.) While some viewers dismiss these episodes as lazy or redundant, when executed properly they can produce interesting results: richer, more intimate dialogue and character development.

Elephant Song, perhaps exciting as a play, translates poorly to the big screen. It amounts to a painfully drawn-out bottle episode that’s just not clever enough to make up for the lack of change in location.

Everything from the banal dialogue, to the melodramatic flashbacks to the supposed intensity of Michael’s rapport with Doctor Green feels heavy-handed. There are attempts to build tension with a series of unnerving questions: did Michael harm Dr. Lawrence? Do Dr. Green and Nurse Peterson share a dark secret? Is the ‘elephant song’ a metaphor? Each question is answered, and each dénouement is somehow anticlimactic.

Not everything fails. Dolan, with that cheeky smile of his, is well cast, and the psychopathic streak in his performance provides the film’s most entertaining aspect. The few evocative moments are those in which we witness Michael alone. In one scene, he sings opera to himself on the toilet, a mysterious way of negotiating his extreme lack of privacy, and an interesting pause amidst the straightforward storytelling.

Binamé’s cinematography is sophisticated; the shots are often plain and symmetrical, and the bold sterility of it contrasts nicely with the emotional mess plaguing each of the characters.

Unfortunately the material doesn’t live up to this stylishness and feels more like something you’d watch on Lifetime late at night, rather than making for a convincing cinematic experience.

Elephant Song is currently on general release.


An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA from McGill University last spring.

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