An eminent psychiatrist vanishes from his office; the last person to see him is a troubled patient named Michael. The hospital director, Dr Greene, is called in to interview Michael. Miss Peterson, the head nurse, understands all too well the devastating loss that still haunts Dr Greene and warns him to steer clear of this particular patient — to no avail. Michael prattles on about elephants and opera (with the occasional hint of murder and foul play) and lures the hospital director into a devious trap. Dr Greene’s redemption will come at a hefty price…
After a short prologue depicting a boy being ignored by his famous opera-singer mother in 1947 Cuba, where she’s holding a recital, the pic flashes forward to an unnamed Canadian city in 1966. There, one Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore) is stirring anxiety among his fellow staffers at a hospital, having not shown up for work. He vanished the prior day after an appointment with longtime patient Michael (Xavier Dolan), who has hinted he knows where the missing doc is. Staff chief Dr. Green (Bruce Greenwood), an administrator who seldom sees patients despite his psychiatric qualifications, is tasked with coaxing this intel from the young man, whose history he’s unfamiliar with. Having forgotten his reading glasses, he can’t read the lad’s case file anyway.
Green has already been warned by Nurse Peterson (Catherine Keener) that his subject is a compulsive, devious game player, and as one of several conditions for his cooperation, Michael insists the doctor keep that file shut, to level the playing field between them. So “Elephant Song” (so named because Michael has a fetish for elephant lore, later explained by another childhood flashback) becomes one of those narratives in which a supposedly brilliant madman toys with an authority figure as long as he can, parceling out the occasional truth amid red herrings to keep the fun going. In such stories, the authority figure invariably succumbs all too easily to tricks that seem fairly obvious to the audience — especially when he or she is a psychiatrist, a profession whose rather strict ethics seem to crumble onscreen as easily as week-old toast.
Apparently nurses, too, lose their moral bearings at the drop of a hat, since by merely eavesdropping, Michael seems to know everything about Dr. Green, including the fact that, until three years ago, he was married to Nurse Peterson, and that the loss of a child drove them apart. (In a poorly integrated subplot presumably not in the play, we also glimpse Green’s unhappy current home life with Carrie-Anne Moss as a pushily self-centered second wife.)
Moderately intriguing if never very suspenseful, “Elephant Song” is framed by sequences of Green and Peterson being interviewed separately by an outside investigator, well after the nearly real-time session that constitutes the majority of the running time. But various chronological gambits and other attempts to open up a story clearly shaped for the stage only do so much to camouflage that original format in Nicolas Billon’s adaptation of his own play. Likewise, helmer Biname tries to make things as cinematically fluid as possible, but there’s only so much he can do when the gist here is two people in a room talking.
Though the character writing occasionally strains credulity — would these middle-aged hospital veterans be so easily rattled by Michael? — Greenwood and Keener deliver expert performances that get the most out of the somewhat dimensionally challenged figures they play. Apart from Moss’ rather thankless role, supporting turns are well handled as well as brief. As for Dolan, whose well-received latest film as writer-director (“Mommy”) also screened at Toronto, he gives one of those showy performances in a contrived part that land smack between the entertainingly flamboyant and the annoyingly artificial.
Packaging is solid, with handsome design contributions that are somewhat wasted on this claustrophobic material. (Dennis Harvey, Variety.com)
Stage to screen adaptations can often be the most difficult to accomplish. When adapting a book to screen, there is often more to expand and take from. When adapting from a stage play – especially one that primarily takes place in one location – directors must make sure that the film does not feel confined or restricted. With an excellent cast that includes Bruce Greenwood, Xavier Dolan, and Catherine Keener, Canadian director Charles Binamé adapts Nicolas Billon’s psychological thriller, ELEPHANT SONG. Sadly, the screen here proved to be a bit too big for this play to handle.
After the abrupt disappearance of one hospital doctor, another, Dr. Toby Green (Greenwood), a psychologist, is called in to interrogate Michael (Xavier Dolan), a patient who is believed to know the whereabouts of the missing doctor. As Toby continues to peel the layers away from Michael’s mind games – or so he believes – he continues to ignore the advice given from the person who knows Michael best, Toby’s ex-wife, nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener).
Much about the film feels awfully familiar, most noticeably, Dolan’s (and the playwright’s) attempt to channel Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The film even goes so far as to quote Lecter’s “quid pro quo” bit. Dolan does his best, but up against the talents of Greenwood and Keener, it’s clear that his best place in this industry is as a writer and director. Even as an actor, Dolan never steers clear of what he loves most in a film though, that being mommy issues. Yes, Michael is a very troubled young man and that is rooted back to his mother’s abandonment.
The film steadily increases its intensity with its pacing; as if it were leading up to some profound revelation. Well that revelation sadly never comes. The entire final act of the film falls completely flat but while ELEPHANT SONG isn’t entirely believable, it is still worth watching for Keener and Greenwood’s performances alone. That said, I would have much rather watched those performances on a stage, where they belong. VOTO: 3/5 (Matthew Hoffman , blacksheepreviews.com)
“Un éléphant se trompe,” says one character (who will remain nameless) at the end of Elephant Song. The phrase playfully puns on the word trompe, which refers to an elephant’s trunk and serves as a verb for the word “deceive.” Elephants and deception form the core of Elephant Song, Charles Binamé’s new drama that has its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, as a taut psychological drama unfolds between a psychologist, Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood) and his manipulative patient, Michael Aleem (Xavier Dolan).
Elephant Song, which screenwriter Nicholas Billon adapts from his own play, is a small-scale chamber drama as Dr. Green interviews Michael in an attempt to uncover information about the disappearance of a staff psychologist. Michael, the final patient to see Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore) before he ran hurriedly out the hospital doors, teases Dr. Green in a Hannibal Lecter-ish quid pro quo to work the investigation to his best advantage.
A tense battle of wits ensues. The entire affair plays out as if premeditated by Michael. Elephants and deceptions characterize every revelation he offers and it’s soon clear that Dr. Green isn’t the one in charge. The cool, low-key interiors of Elephant Song set the mood as tense and murky, as Binamé likens the gaping interview room as a shell housing two lobes of the mind.
Dolan gives a fascinating performance, although it’s often hard to forget that one is watching a performance, as Michael’s maniacal tease plays into Dolan’s persona as both a queer artist and a narcissistic one. Watch Dolan fellate the trunk of a plush elephant without restraint and the self-referential strangeness of his performance assuredly controls the film. Elephant Song almost unavoidably seems like a conversation piece to tag alongside Dolan’s masterful directorial effort Mommy, which also screens at the Festival, and moviegoers eager to explore this upstart Canadian talent will undoubtedly be impressed by his range as an artist.
Greenwood provides a fine counterpoint for Dolan with his unruffled and restrained turn as Dr. Green. Elephant Song inevitably invites Michael to run circles around Dr. Green, which makes their contrasting performances effective foils, but it also introduces the tireless Nurse Peterson (Catherine Keener), to act as the eyes for the audience caught in the crosshairs of elephant trunks and trickery. Keener is very, very good in her role, which also acts as bargaining chip between Michael and Dr. Green, since she and Dr. Green were formally married and split apart after a cruel incident.
The synergy between the three actors gives Elephant Song a triangular dynamic that shifts and turns as the film progresses. An embedded narrative adds another investigation in which Dr. Green and Nurse Peterson answer questions for a police officer, and it’s clear from their dress and demeanour that neither of them currently works at the hospital and that the query into Dr. Lawrence’s whereabouts met a terrible end. Elephant Song, by cutting from past to present, uses the three characters to weave a secondary missing persons case for Michael fails to appear in the present day scenes.
Elephant Song also characterizes the part of Nurse Peterson with a lot of running in and out of the room at the behest of either the doctor or the patient. The action somewhat betrays the film’s theatrical origins as Nurse Peterson keeps running onscreen and off. (The effect is much like the in/out game in Roman Polanski’s stage-to-screen effort Carnage.) Alternatively, the constriction Nurse Peterson places on the film constantly reminds the audience of the confines of the interview office. This dynamic advances the tense game going on in the office as the two men try to permeate each other’s mind. The claustrophobia of the dramatically confined energy works akin to a play on theatrical versus cinematic space as the four walls of the primary setting act as the battlefield of the mind. VOTO: 3,5/5 (cinemablographer.com)