Excellent Elephant

Simple makes perfect for Gus Van Sant

ELEPHANT written and directed by Gus Van Sant, produced by Dany Wolf, with Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor and Carrie Finklea. 81 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (November 7). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 89. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN

It’s less than halfway through Elephant – when you begin to forget Columbine, when your mind lets go of the movie-of-the-week hovering in this film’s shadow – that its brilliance begins to emerge. This is a very simple film. For 81 minutes, Gus Van Sant follows a group of teenagers on a day that ends in carnage. They stroll the halls of their high school, they flirt, they eat in the cafeteria. Two of them play games, and kiss.

Their movements that day loop around in circles. The film will follow one character toward an encounter in the hallway or the library, then lap back and follow another to the same moment.

The follow shot is the key to Elephant. Van Sant wrote, directed and edited the film, but it’s in the cinematography that he makes his presence felt most. Refining a technique he used in Gerry, he’s evolved one of the few distinct visual styles in American movies.

New technology and skyrocketing sophistication among both cinematographers and audiences mean that few directors even carry the same camera style from one film to the next any more. What once was Martin Scorsese’s signature camera work is now the vernacular for music videos and straight-to-video thrillers.

This makes Van Sant’s follow shots stand out all the more. They’re critical in establishing his point of view on his characters. His eye here is dispassionate and yet full of compassion.

Van Sant has talked about being influenced by Béla Tarr’s filmmaking, but I’d hazard a grander comparison. At the risk of bringing down the knee-jerk wrath of cinephiles, I’d say Elephant is the most successful inheritor I’ve seen of Robert Bresson’s austere, committed style. Elephant doesn’t look like a Bresson film, but its look produces a similar effect.

This is a very simple film, and perhaps because of that simplicity, it is perfect.

One of the best of the year.


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