Just as we will never know what was going through the minds of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris when they shot up their Colorado high school on April 20, 1999, the same could be said for the jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which awarded Elephant the Palme d'Or and Best Director awards. What were they thinking? Was it a touch of chic Euro anti-Americanism ("Look at those disgusting Americans and their vicious culture of death!")? Was it admiration for Gus Van Sant's tracking shot-filled mise-en-sc'ne ("Sacre bleu! Le Steadicam magnifique!")? Or were they all on drugs?
The answer eludes this reviewer. Schematic to the point of absurdity, Elephant lacks character or storyline, and in its attempt to explain why the killers did what they did, descends to the most idiotic of clichs: They were Nazi homos!!
Whatever. Staged as a "day in the life" look at an unnamed high school (the film was shot in Portland, Oregon), Elephant follows a mixed bag of students in the hour or two before the massacre. It's a typical gaggle of nerds, geeks, jocks, artsy types, female hotties and what-have-yous, none of whom is given more than a few minutes of screen time as Van Sant attempts to paint a portrait of the school before it blows apart.
Then, in the last half-hour or so, the focus switches to the killers, Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), as they play violent video games, watch a documentary about Hitler's rise to power, shoot at a target with automatic weapons and make out in the shower.
The last part of the film is devoted to the massacre, which, like everything else in Elephant, is imaginatively, even brilliantly, staged. But so what? Without any sort of intelligent analysis--and there is none--the film becomes little more than a sick guessing game. Which one of these stereotyped teens will get it first? When? And how?
It seems that after several years spent in the Hollywood mainstream, during which his output was wildly uneven (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Psycho), Van Sant wanted to return to his indie roots. But in doing so, in opting for style over substance, he has produced one of the most vacuous and irresponsible films of the year.