This article reveals the plot and the explanation of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, focusing on the meanings and the events described. We recommend to read only after watching the movie, not before, in order to not lose the joy of the first vision.
Gus Van Sant never had too much feeling with Hollywood. He was born registically with the New Queer Cinema, and he has always loved indipendent cinema. In fact, his brief relationship with the mainstream led to few highs (Will Hunting, 1997), and to many lows (the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho in 1999, and Discovering Forrester in 2000).
So it’s not so strange that after just three years in Hollywood, Van Sant returns to his beloved independent cinema with the so-called Trilogy of Death, made up by Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005). In this article we want to focus on Elephant, the critics’ most appreciated movie of the trilogy: it has won the Palme d’or for best film and the award for Best director at the 56° Cannes Film Festival.
The movie, which takes its cue from the Columbine High School massacre back in 1999, is conducted through an exasperated realism that aims to immerse and at the same time to alienate the spectator from the representation. The realism is in the choice of using non-professional actors totally free to improvvisate: (the movie’s soundtrack has been chosen by Alex Forst, Alex’s interpreter).
Van Sant follows with his steadycam the different students of the high school in their usual activities: so we enter into Michelle‘s life (a girl so uncomfortable with her aesthetic appearance that she could not wear the shorts during Gym lessons); we enter into Nathan and Carrie‘s life, a young couple in love; we enter into Brittany, Nicole and Jordan‘s life (they are obsessed with their own appearance and suffer bulimia); we enter into John‘s life, who has an alcohol addicted father; we enter into Elias‘ life, who loves photography; we enter into Acadia‘s life, which we follow in a meeting on sex education.
In this few lines that we have written, the movie’s screenplay doesn’t really seems to be nothing exceptional, in fact the peculiarity of the movie is in the way the director follows the characters: he positions his steadycam for the most of the filming behind their shoulders, he follows them with long shots that seek that sense of virtual reality of the early 00’s videogames. So we explore with the protagonists the high school, feeling immersed in the phenomenic reality but at the same time feeling incredibly extraneous, because of the anti-dramatic long shots.
The director thus operates a very thin mechanism of deconstruction of cinematographic naturalism: altough everything in the staging seems trying to give back in the film the greatest degree of reality possible, in reality, Van Sant operates an alienation that would be the manifestation of the new perception of reality, typical of the contemporary world. Van Sant films a world in which you can no longer distinguish analog from digital. In this perspective we can undestand the choice of the repetition: the director shows us the same event from different points of view, he shows us a fragmented and totally subjective reality.
The apex of this subtle conflict between appearance and meaning is reached in the massacre’s sequence. The two executioners are two students, Alex and Eric: Alex draws, he’s fond of classical music and he’s subject to bullying; Eric loves violent video games and weapons, and he’s not in a good reletionship with his parents. Van Sant follows with the steadycam the two boys, causing an obvious short circuit in the spectator’s mind: who could feel represented by two executioners?
Provocatively the director seems to imply that we have killed those high schoolers that we had known during the film: the massacre is not the work of two psychopaths (and in fact nothing in particular differences them from their victims), but responsible is the system. The meaning is very evident in the same title of the film, in which the allusion is to the elephant in the room, a metaphor of a problem which everyone sees but that nobody wants to talk about.
So in the last sequence Van Sant performs a real anti-narrative process, not making us enter emotionally in the massacre, not creating suspense. Also in this perspective certainly comes the choice of not showing everything, in fact what’s not shown is carefully chosen: as previously the director had not directly shown us the bulimia of the girls, in the end he does not show us the deaths of the characters who we had known during the film (except from Michelle).
Homosexuality is another important theme in the movie. It is addressed in two moments and in two different but closely connected ways. The first meeting with the topic is in the meeting on sexual education to which the young Acadia participates; here the Director shows us slowly in a clockwise direction the participants, in this way he makes us feel at the center, and in a certain sense makes us feel the element put in the middle even in a psychological sense, in fact the feeling is to be almost attacked by what is being said, regardless of our sexual orientation.
The second encounter with the theme of homosexuality is just before the start of the massacre, when Eric unexpectedly kisses Alex in the shower. In this moment we understand that Eric is in a sentimental dependency towards Alex (Eric will be murdered by Alex during the massacre). But this scene is truly crucial to understand the movie’s ideology, too, in fact if we collect the pieces, we get as a result that sexual exclusion is one of the worst mistakes of the system we live in. Beware, however, to draw too obvious justifications and to fall into a catharsis that is denied throughout the film: if the spectator was put metaphorically in the center during the meeting of sexual education, then he’s the sexual outcast that actively carries out that massacre. This is the short cicuit that we were talking about.
So troughout this virtual realism, Van Sant creates a sense of restlessness within the spectator: his goal is not make him feel purified during the vision, but to make him feel guilty, because we are all guilty of a drama like the Columbine High School carnage.