How does a filmmaker, pace Godard, go about making sense of an incomprehensible tragedy? What should be his or her approach? On the one extreme, we have countless examples of “true stories” where a Don Cheadle or a Juliette Binoche or whoever serves as our beleaguered yet determined surrogate who ably navigates the treacherous waters of history—and, more often than not, comes out ahead. Everyone is satisfied: the studio, the audience, the actor, the custodians of the politically correct version(s) of history. I don’t think it would be too far to say that Alan Clarke’s Elephant falls somewhere close to the other end of the spectrum.
Simply put, the film is a reenactment of eighteen murders in Belfast during one of the most violent phases of the Northern Ireland conflict, or “The Troubles.” Elephant does not tell you that. There is no voiceover, no title cards or discernable dialogue, no plot or characters in the conventional sense. One could easily argue that it is nothing more, or less, than a compilation of eighteen sectarian murders in an unnamed city. But that’s too brutally cold for my liking, even if it is as bluntly honest as the film itself.
It goes without saying that the film does not contain any overt political or social commentary. But it would be incorrect to call it thoughtless or insensitive. Clarke and his producer, Danny Boyle, wanted to draw attention to the deaths of ordinary citizens that were largely being ignored by the press in favor of those that were deemed more important. And they wanted to highlight the mindless, cyclical nature of the violence taking place in the streets, the way they saw it as outsiders.
The title is derived from a quote by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, who once described the conflict as like having an elephant in your living room that nobody mentions because it’s just so enormous and with you the whole time, and while you can’t ignore it you become used to it after a certain amount of time, if not reconciled to it. Gus Van Sant, a great admirer of Clarke and this film, borrowed the title for his 2003 effort which was based in part on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. His film turned out to be nearly as opaque and as devastating.
Van Sant was also inspired by Clarke’s rigorous and economical formal choices. Similar to a number of his other works such as Made in Britain (1982), The Firm (1989) and, especially, Christine (1987), Clarke employs steadicam to remarkable effect. Most sequences begin with a long take in which he tracks either the killer or the victim onto the murder site. The disciplined repetition of this approach only heightens our awareness of the inevitable and the grim reality of the situation. It is as if Clarke, like Bresson, believed in the notion that repetition somehow brings you closer to the truth. His exaggerated use of sound also echoes the work of the French master: every step on the concrete sounds like a firecracker. And there is quite a bit of walking in this film. Clarke bookends every sequence, save for the last, with a long static shot of the victim. It is not meant as an attempt to identify the victim, but to identify with the victim.
Speaking of repetition, subsequent viewings of this barely 40-minute film have made me more aware of a number of its other elements. For instance, the physical settings depicted in the film—all actual locations where murders took place. They look and feel as maimed and scarred as the body of the victims. And they are just as lonely. So much so that it’s hard to imagine life occurring in these surroundings at all. Many of the shootings take place in public places: baths, parks, parking lots, offices. Both the killers and the victims are of various ages and class backgrounds. Hardly anyone comes across like a professional. It is easy to see why someone would deem this incomprehensible. How they go about making sense of it is another matter.