Elephant Song

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein

When I was a fourth grader, my favorite aunt came to stay with us, awaiting bed availability for her in a psychiatric unit. She was in the grip of an involutional paranoid psychosis and
the change in her terrified me. A pearls and white gloves, sweet-talking southerner, she was now transformed, dishevelled and staring. She would pull me aside to hiss warnings her delusions about my mother having been replaced by an imposter into my ear. Four decades later, that experience probably influenced my choice of a topic for my doctoral dissertation: schizophrenic thought disorder. And explained why, in my first year as a faculty member at the
University of Michigan, I spent my Saturdays at Ypsilanti State Hospital, lugging around a thirty pound “portable” Wollensak T 1500 tape recorder, interviewing inmates about the events surrounding their hospitalization. It also explained my feeling of deja vue when the opening scenes of the movie, Elephant Song centered on a T 1500 recording an interview.

Dr. Greene, a psychiatrist at a psychiatric hospital, is being  interviewed by a colleague. The interview deals with  mysterious disappearance of one of the staff psychiatrists and the role that might have been played in that event by Michael, a patient of the vanished staff member, Dr. Lawrence. The interview is interpolated by flashbacks to an earlier meeting, Dr. Greene’s interview of Michael, as he investigates what might have become of Dr. Lawrence.

Xavier Dolan portrays the young psychotic, Michael, in a powerful performance, engaging Dr. Greene in a cat and mouse game. Michael hints that he may have killed Lawrence, his therapist, and hidden his body. He succeeds in foxing Dr. Greene into search, leading him to a plastic bag concealed in the closet of Dr. Lawrence’s office. But the bag contains, not the hinted at body parts, but a large stuffed elephant. Michael exploits the discovery by miming fellatio with elephant’s trunk, implying that he had been orally penetrated by his therapist. Dr. Greene is understandably shocked and skeptical. Michael’s response is to claim that he knows of pornographic photos of him that Lawrence has hidden in his office, and cajoles Greene into another search.

The movie slowly reveals collateral complications. Greene’s first wife is a nurse at the institution. Their marriage ended because of their young daughter’s accidental death by drowning and with Greene feeling that the tragedy was the result of his wife’s carelessness.
He has remarried and the couple have a young child. His second wife clearly feels that Greene invests more in his profession than in his new family.

In the course of their interview, Greene and Michael slowly develop some mutual trust, and Michael reveals his feelings of being shunted aside by his mother, an operatic diva, and his terror at being taken on an African safari by his father, where the youngster witnessed the
killing of an elephant. Michael also tells of his mother’s slow slide into narcotic abuse and his decision, when he discovers her in overdose coma, to sing the elephant counting song while she dies rather than calling for help.

It would be a spoiler to reveal how these complications are resolved, but you can find out by searching for the film on Amazon Prime. I will only say that I was taken by the film. Maybe partly because of my aunt. And the T 1500.

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