Published Feb 26, 2015Charles Binamé's Elephant Song has accumulated a lot of buzz going into this year's TIFF thanks to a much-hyped performance by Xavier Dolan, the 25-year old Montreal director who has been proclaimed a "boy wonder" with the Cannes success of his newest film Mommy (also screening at TIFF this year).
The film is a tightly paced adaptation of Nicolas Billon's stage play, starring Dolan as Michael, a young man at a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. Bruce Greenwood and Catherine Keener play Toby Green and Susan Peterson, psychiatrists who question Michael after their colleague Lawrence goes missing. Michael was the last person to see Lawrence before he disappeared, but figuring out what happened to Lawrence proves difficult, as Michael becomes challenging and manipulative to both doctors.
Binamé works overtime to transcend the languid chamber drama nature of the stage adaptation (see last year's August: Osage County for a film that couldn't make stage drama gripping onscreen). He employs excellent editing, cutting between a number of different timelines to craft a gripping mystery. However, the film careens between wildly fluctuating tones and the high melodramatic nature of the material occasionally verges into camp territory. Dolan makes some big choices as a performer, unleashing bottled up energy and anger at key moments. Paired up with Bruce Greenwood, one of the more dialled-back and restrained actors working today, Dolan's energy sometimes threatens to overpower the whole film, but only takes it too far on a couple of occasions.
The stagey nature of the film occasionally reveals itself thanks to its period setting, complete with tweed suits and typewriters, a time period that doesn't contribute anything to the story. Binamé's drab composition and oppressively grey colour palette, reminiscent of Eastwood's summer flop Jersey Boys, contrasts dramatically with the high melodrama of the plot, leading to some moments of unintended camp and humour. While Binamé is able to navigate a wildly shifting narrative with many twists and turns, a few reveals fall flat because the tonal whiplash eventually becomes exhausting over the film's 110 minutes. Strong work from all performers and an interesting mystery makes Elephant Song an almost-success.