Elephant review

:. Director: Gus Van Sant
:. Starring: Alex Frost, John Robinson
:. Running Time: 1:21
:. Year: 2003
:. Country: USA

Freely inspired by the tragedy of Colombine, this relentless fiction directed by Gus Van Sant, is a masterpiece of mise-en-scène.

Between 1997 and 1999, the United States had no less than eight fatal shootings perpetrated in schools, including the notorious Columbine High School. This carnage, very traumatizing in the U.S., made the country face a youth lacking social marks.

What Michael Moore chose to investigate in Bowling for Columbine, accumulating evidence at the service of a biting demonstration on the media's responsibility for the sedentary neurosis that contaminated the population, Van Sant, on the contrary, imposes originality through an entirely cerebral approach. Everything is about looks in his film.

The director endeavors to describe one ordinary day in the life of a high school, before everything turns into a violent chaos: high school students wander in the halls and their schedule is divided between boring classes, discussion groups (the "Gay Straight Alliance"), various gossip and football games.

Van Sant takes time to install his device. However, his objective isn't to close his film with a climax—the killing—filmed from the distance. This morality of the look is the fruit of a real reflection in terms of mise-en-scene.

Decency is central here, the horror having been relegated out off-screen. For example, the presence of the assassins is suggested by the noise of a rifle being loaded. Van Sant never shows the killers in action, preferring to tighten the framing or move the camera away. Why integrally film these scenes when the audience knows the tragic conclusion?

The point of view is multiplied ad infinitum, distributed between a plethora of characters who are followed by the camera through long and majestic shots of the interminable and impersonal halls. These shots are filled with anxiety, giving us the impression that the high-school students are tracked and that danger approaches. Death, inexorable, sticks to their steps.

Thus, the events of this ordinary and tragic day are seen through various angles and on several occasions, according to the witnesses of the scene. This inventive filmmaking process evokes the universe of video games, to which it is referred to, without being designated as responsible for the act of madness of the two young boys. Van Sant avoids the pitfall of determinism and only touches lightly in the possible causes of the massacre: the dislocation of the family core, a badly digested fascist ideology, the sale of the weapons..

Concerning Alex, one of the authors of the killing, Van Sant uses internal focusing, to hear the tumult which thunders under his skull, while he's elaborating his fatal plan.

To say that the musical score is complex is an euphemism! Finely crafted, it uses concrete music, as is often the case in Van Sant's work, with distortions, muted rumblings, strident sounds which increase before suddenly disappearing. Sometimes, silence is even more alarming than clamor... Chaos and fear are born from this sumptuous sound approach. "I've never saw such a vile and beautiful day" Alex says coldly, knowing his planned final hour is near.

Van Sant is unequaled in filming youth. All of his films refer to it (except for the experimental Psycho), from Mala Noche to Finding Forrester and Gerry. Van Sant gives a voice and body to this population which lives in the margin of the American dream. The actors he chose are quite simply staggering in their naturalness! They play their own roles onscreen and improvise most of the scenes.

This new variation on the Columbine massacre teaches us only one thing: evil devastates our modern societies from the inside. Youth, promised with a future, are the first ones to suffer for it.

  Sandrine Marques

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