The Elephant Man (1980, dir. David Lynch)
Simply put, The Elephant Man is one the greatest films ever made. This is the last of David Lynch’s feature film work had to watch, something I’d put off for years because I didn’t want to run out of his work that could be new to me. But, with the impending return of Twin Peaks, I decided now was the time to complete his filmography. I can’t imagine picking a better film that both contrasts with so much of work, yet compliments it.
The Elephant Man is the story of John Merrick (Joseph in real life), an Englishman born with severe physical deformities. While the film takes creative liberties with the structure of events, it is quite substantial in portraying Merrick’s desire for normalcy and his abuse at the hands of English society. Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is the physician who discovers Merrick (played by John Hurt) on display in a side show. Treves is so moved by Merrick’s condition he brings him into London Hospital as a permanent home. At first, the doctor believes Merrick to be an imbecile, but the afflicted man reveals a profound intellect and tremendous empathy over time. Treves eventually struggles with the idea that his medical display of Merrick may be no different than the carnival barkers who exploited his patient. All the while, Merrick’s sense of love grows as he encounters many loving and caring people.
The Elephant Man was made on the heels of Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead. Like Mel Brooks, the Elephant Man’s producer stated about this first film “It’s an adolescent’s nightmare about taking responsibility.” Brooks is right on the nose, and I would argue that the follow-up feature is the story of the grotesque as the most human and the normal as the greatest horror. This theme would come to permeate the entirety of Lynch’s work, but here it is maturation. In Eraserhead, the horror of the ordinary is to become a husband and father, and this is an absolutely understandable fear from a young man. However, it is a horror that doesn’t resonate nearly as deep as how the common man is portrayed in The Elephant Man. Half a decade later, Lynch would refine this idea in Blue Velvet and ever since it has been a theme he returns to time and time again.
While set in Victorian England and featuring none of whom would become Lynch’s regulars, there are still elements of his direction present. The surreal opening nightmare, wordlessly telling the myth behind Merrick’s deformity is standard Lynch. Smoke represents the spiritual moving into our sphere of reality. A woman’s screams are distorted to the point of becoming animalistic roars. Lynch forces his audience to linger with and process the horrid pain of another human being. Throughout the film, we move through a nighttime industrial landscape of grim and churning machines. The film concludes with a low electronic hum as we drift forward in a sea of stars. This is undeniably a David Lynch film, yet still unlike the vast majority of his work.
I was delighted to have watched The Straight Story and this movie back to back because they capture an element of Lynch’s work I feel has been grossly overlooked by the majority of critics: his empathy. I would argue that few directors in America possess the depth of compassion that Lynch puts across throughout all his work. In the hands of a lesser director, The Elephant Man would have devolved into saccharine sentimentality and would have gone the route of emotional manipulation to tell Merrick’s story. The Elephant Man, as it stands, will eviscerate you emotionally but it never pulls cheap tricks of sentiment to do so. What evokes heavy emotion is Lynch’s personal love of this man. The way the camera films Merrick we see Lynch’s love pouring through the lens. It was an intentional decision to design the movie in the vein of classic monster movies as a way to subvert audience expectations and push the theme of the monster as the most human.
Not enough can be said about John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. By 1980, Hurt was an actor that had garnered a good amount of acclaim. I, Claudius would likely be considered his major breakthrough which was followed by supporting roles in Midnight Express and Alien. But this role is the one that propelled Hurt to a level of acclaim beyond anything he had experienced, and all of it was rightly deserved. I cannot emphasize the heart-wrenching tenderness of his work as Merrick. Buried underneath pounds of makeup to simulate Merrick’s severe deformities, Hurt is able to fight through it to portray a man of such love towards all he encountered. And while Hurt is beautiful at this gentleness he is still able to roar in the classic “I am not animal” scene where Merrick is chased into and cornered in a men’s lavatory by cruel gawkers. When the 1981 Academy Awards came around Hurt was beaten by Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull, a deserving win for DeNiro, but frustrating because Hurt deserved every award he was nominated for from this performance.
Anthony Hopkins is often overlooked as Dr. Treves because of the layers Hurt was working with as the lead character, but Hopkins plays perfectly in compliment to Hurt. Treves is a man of medicine at a time when that field was in its Renaissance and so many breakthroughs were happening. True to history, a comment is made about so many young doctors seeking out and putting the physically deformed on display under the banner of “research”. While, the medical field did much to liberate many physically disabled people from the exploitation of sideshows and carnivals it must be said not all doctors had the best interests of their patients in mind. Hopkins’ Treves is a man who is simmering with internal conflict. He is passionate that Merrick be given a safe harbor and care, but still puts the man on display completely nude before a lecture hall of fellow professionals. There is never a huge speech on Treves’ part declaring this conflict, and it is all through Hopkins dedicated craft as an actor that he conveys these emotions in subtle touches. When he finally does explode after discovering Merrick has been physically and emotionally abused by a trusted figure we see that personal guilt come pouring out.
The Elephant Man is a masterpiece of cinema. It is a perfect combination of technical craft, storytelling, and acting that tells what may be the greatest humanist tale. While in our modern day many of us like to think we are more accepting than generations before us, I would argue that while styles may have changed humanity is still fundamentally flawed in this regard. Modern media still prizes the physically perfected as exemplars of Good over the true internal nature of individuals. And this in turn as allowed a profound spiritual ugliness to rear its head across the culture. David Lynch reminds us that the real beauty is hidden away and not matter how much we exploit we’ll never reach that place. Merrick reaches the plateau that the “beautiful” so often fail to ascend to and it is reflected in his words, even after being beaten and mocked, “My life is full because I know I am loved.”