Directing and releasing five films across the last four years, with three of them premiering at Cannes, and another at Venice, you might understand why Xavier Dolan might not have time to return phone calls. And given the limited stateside distribution of his films, it might also be easy to forget that in addition to writing and directing, Dolan is a pretty good actor, having appeared in three of his features (“I Killed My Mother,” “Heartbeats” and “Tom At The Farm”). He’s a charismatic and playful screen presence, and when Charles Binamé called with a role in his two-hander “Elephant Song,” Dolan’s attraction to the part seems obvious. It’s a scenery-chewing, spotlight-ready role, and he nimbly makes the most of it. Unfortunately, the film around Dolan’s performance is as static and restrained as he is energetic and loose.
Based on the play by award-winning playwright Nicolas Billon, “Elephant Song” is essentially a battle of wills. Taking place over the course of an afternoon during the Christmas holidays during the 1960s, the audience is placed into the office of Lawrence (Colm Feore), a psychiatrist at a juvenile mental institution, who has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. However, the key to his whereabouts might lie with Michael (Dolan), a troublesome patient at the hospital with his own agenda, who uses this opportunity to try and bargain for his freedom in exchange for information. But first he’ll have to get past Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood), who is brought in to talk to the young man and figure out what he knows. But in short order, Michael has set up the rulebook Dr. Green must play by: Michael wants to be heard and listened to without any prejudice, so Dr. Green is not allowed to read anything in his patient file.
You might be wondering why no one has called the police or Lawrence’s relatives to try and track down the missing doctor, but a vague reason of a recent scandal and wanting to keep things quiet is given, but not quite believable. Meanwhile, on the periphery, there are further plot entanglements, including Toby’s relationship with Nurse Susan Peterson (a severely underused Catherine Keener), who Michael isn’t a fan of, as she knows what’s in his bag of tricks. So it’s back to Michael and Dr. Green, and their tete-a-tete battle, but the problem is that it’s so one-sided, the film never builds the dramatic tension it needs to keep us engaged.
To put it simply, the main issue facing Dr. Green isn’t Michael’s tricksiness, it’s his own woeful ineptitude. Continually acquiescing, being manipulated or making a string of bad choices, Dr. Green is putty in Michael’s hands. And so this means Dolan gets to plaster a Cheshire Cat grin on his face and have his way with the material, while Greenwood is stuck looking like his suit is three sizes too tight. It’s a dynamic that’s sometimes unintentionally funny, but that mostly gets one-note very fast. You keep waiting for Dr. Green to turn the tables, to gain some kind of upper hand, or least work on a level playing field with his opponent, but it never comes. And even Michael’s backstory, eventually revealed to lend insight into his role (or not) in Lawrence’s disappearance, and his own institutionalization, is fairly standard stuff in procedurals, and a chunk of it is given away in the film’s trailer.
Matters aren’t helped by Binamé’s direction, which betrays his plentiful experience on television and the low budget with which he had to work. He relies heavily on his actors to add color to the otherwise visually blank proceedings, but it doesn’t work when you keep an actress of Keener’s calibre outside most of the action, or Carrie-Anne Moss smoking cigarettes and waiting on the other end of the phone.
“Elephant Song” isn’t so much a bad film as it is exceedingly safe. It brings a stew of potentially challenging themes and ideas, particularly for the time — the consequences of neglectful parenting, unrequited love, homosexual relationships — and backgrounds them for a verbal fight that is never fair or in question from the first word. Watching Dolan have his way with pretty much every scene, you wind up wishing he had directed too, and brought the excitement he brings to his turn to the rest of the movie. [C-]