TIFF Review: 'Elephant Song'

Elephant Song
(Canada, 110 min.)
Dir. Charles Binamé, Writ. Nicholas Billon
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Xavier Dolan, Catherine Keener, Carrie-Anne Moss.
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

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.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

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Update: Elephant Song opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Feb. 27.