Gus Van Sant's drifty, eloquent, and effortlessly poignant ELEPHANT is loosely based on the massacre at Columbine High School. (On April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado two 17-year-old boys fired semi-automatic weapons on their high school classmates, killing 13, injuring 25, and then taking their own lives.) Van Sant's film is set in Portland, Oregon and uses non-actors chosen from an open casting call of high school students. On a crisp, sunny Autumn day, with colourful leaves on the trees and puffy clouds drifting across blue skies, students arrive at school as usual. Eli takes photographs for his portfolio, John manages problems with his alcoholic father, Acadia attends a gay-lesbian meeting, Nate plays a game of tag football, and Michelle works in the library. Meanwhile, two outsiders, Eric and Alex, harbour hatred for their peers. Each of ELEPHANT's students have unique interests and personalities, and the film respectfully emphasises their individuality. It also demonstrates how school is an unpredictable blender where students' differences are constantly agitated. Harris Savides' excellent photography--shot in 1:33 aspect ratio, making the movie a cube in the centre of the screen--follows and floats, sometimes blurring and juxtaposing the light to achieve an ethereal mood; while Leslie Shatz's ambient sound design and a soundtrack of soft Beethoven piano music completes that feeling. The film is structured in brief overlapping chapters all taking place on the morning of the 11:35 A.M. attack.
ELEPHANT won the Palme D'Or and Best Director at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.