Because the noughts have come and gone, I am trying to revisit all the Palme d’Or winners of the past decade. I started with my favourite Cannes winner of them all, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, the middle film of his Death trilogy. Elephant, which is a fictionalized reimagination of the Columbine Massacre, follows the lives of ordinary students in a fictional high school as it builds to a disturbing and devastating conclusion.
This film is extraordinary because it successfully evokes a simultaneous feeling of sympathy and helplessness for the characters as they go about their regular affairs minutes before the shooting. Elephant thus gives a human face to all students who die in school shootings. Viewers can finally realize that these dead students are not just statistics to be forgotten, but are people who have touched lives and whose lives have been touched.
The characters are richly developed by following the mundane nature of everyday high school life, a life that is soon to be rocked to its core by the disturbing resolution. A different perspective is used for each character. One scene will follow one character. Another scene will follow someone else. There are scenes where characters meet but these are revisited several times from different points of view. All in all, the direction and cinematography are majestic as Van Sant goes all Bela Tarr on us by using long uninterrupted tracking shots to evoke realism. The film’s use of bright autumn colors, with yellow the most prominent, is a sort of antidote to the blackening poison that is its denouement. However, the ubiquity of long haunting corridors brings a constant reminder of its darker theme.
Because I know the premise of the film, there is a sense of foreboding, of terrible things to come. In a way, this sense of fatalistic doom is actually the hook of the film. Still, there is something in me that tries temporarily to forget the tragedy that will eventually happen. This is like trying to ignore the “elephant in the room,” the idiom that is the pervading theme of Elephant. It is a metaphor for the gun problem in America – which has caused so many deaths but is still just being brushed off by politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
Overall, Elephant is a marvelous pièce de résistance for Gus Van Sant. What he explored superficially in some of his inferior films, like interconnectivity and lack of communication, he explores more deeply in this film. Elephant may produce polarizing reactions from the viewers, but these come from the same place – its lasting impact.