HBO/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 81 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
"Why are you crying?"
Any film awarded the Palme d’Or (or Golden Palm), as well as Best Director, prize at the Cannes Film Festival will hold certain expectations in its audience. An amazing ensemble of actors and filmmakers are expected, who collaborate in one act of cinematic excellence. The likes of Roman Polanksi (for The Pianist), Lars von Trier (for Dancer in the Dark) and Quentin Tarantino (for Pulp Fiction) are among the many fantastic filmmakers awarded the Palm d’Or over the years, with the diverse Gus Van Sant to now join their ranks.
His latest effort is very, very different from Van Sant’s previous two works, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. They were both atypical Hollywood dramas, offering some fine acting but little substance (however by no means a failure). While Elephant is certainly different from anything he’s done before, Van Sant’s earlier film My Own Private Idaho, strikes the closest resemblance to the intriguing masterpiece in front of us now.
Unfortunately marketed as an adaptation of the Columbine High School killings of 1999, Elephant’s audience will hold expectations of a grandiose, dramatic film exploring the psychological reasons behind this devastating event. All trailers pointed to a Hollywood-styled drama, fooling naïve audiences and subsequently brutally disappointing them.
"I didn't know John had a dog!"
This film is an exercise in subtlety and simplism, using very simple but extremely effective long steadicam shots to map out a small group of characters going about a relatively normal school day. Just like what would be expected from Brian de Palma if he went all arthouse on us. Featuring extremely beautiful cinematography, simple yet effective acting and superb pieces from Beethoven, Elephant succeeds brilliantly on a technical level. This is a film that is difficult to describe, similar to the likes of Magnolia in terms of complemented simplicity and complexity.
Elephant, however, is not a film for everyone. Much like Sofia Coppola’s recent Lost in Translation or Lars von Trier’s recent Dogville, it will have its audience divided between those who utterly loath it, and those who feel it’s one of the greatest films ever created. Technically, Elephant is a tremendous success, featuring outstanding cinematography, and a very fine direction and grace; yet most of its audience will find difficulty in properly connecting events and characters, finding it a frustrating and difficult to follow.
"Ohh... take a picture of me!"
I encourage those who enjoy a slow, heavy-handed experimental drama to pick up Elephant from their local video store and giving it a good go. You may find the experience extremely rewarding, or very disappointing. Gus Van Sant has created a film that will be respected for years to come, and hopefully you’ll feel its outstanding critical success is warranted as I certainly did. As mentioned before, if you particularly enjoyed Lost in Translation or Dogville, chances are you’ll equally enjoy or appreciate Elephant.
Now, before you leap out of your chair in disgust of a 5/10 video rating, I’ll just make a note that this transfer is fantastic (now you’re really confused). Colours are presented with great clarity, black levels remain solid throughout and only minor aliasing is visible. There is a minor grain present throughout, however considering the low-budget, this is to be expected (and accepted).
However, the film has been cropped from its original ‘full-frame’ (1.37:1) aspect ratio to a more theatre-friendly 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio on this DVD from The AV Channel. Considering the film is a beautiful, artistic masterpiece; the effects of this croppage are disastrous, and can be obviously noticed on many occasions. American buyers will be pleased, as they’re presented with a flipper featuring the original version as well as this new hacked-up mess. It’s a terrible shame we’re stuck with the altered version, as I feel it detracts from some of the simplistic beauty of many scenes within the film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack provided is more than adequate, usually just providing a front-based presentation of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits ™. Most of the film is dialogue-driven, featuring very little special sound effects apart from a few gunshots and background explosions towards the conclusion of the film. The rear channels are rarely silent however, often providing subtle ambience. If perhaps some subwoofer action was present, it’d be a flawless, if very simple, soundtrack.
One small featurette resides on the Elephant disc, and it’s quite interesting and perfectly hits in with the style of the film. At running a little over 12 minutes, ‘On the set of Elephant: Rolling Through Time’ gives a little insight into the barebones production of the film. Interesting, and fairly different from most ‘making-of’ featurettes.
"Oh, no no. I don't do outdoor nudity."
A theatrical trailer for Elephant is also on offer (however vastly different from the original I saw), as well as trailers for other Madman/AV Channel releases including The Party’s Over, The Corporation, Osama, Bowling for Columbine, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories and Owning Mahowny.
This is a very good film that will either leave you feeling rewarded or incredibly frustrated. I honestly recommend it to those who feel like something a little left-field, but not to those who enjoy your Hollywood blockbuster.
Unfortunately, the cropped video transfer lets this package down significantly.