#38 — The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester, England in the mid nineteenth century. Malformed from his youngest days by an uncertain ailment–thought for years to be Neurofibromatosis type I–Merrick entered his adulthood as an abused member of a traveling freak show, touted as “The Elephant Man” and paraded about for the horrified amusement of the crowd. Abandoned, Merrick found his way to the care of a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who saw past the swollen features to the man within and endeavored to provide him with a deserved social dignity.
With the added hindsight of the films that followed, it’s not difficult to sort out what drew director David Lynch to this story. The Elephant Man was only his second feature, a studio-backed prestige follow up to the cult hit weirdness of his debut, Eraserhead. In some respects, the film seems unlikely, even out of character for the director. It has a solemnity about it, a practiced sedateness that, for good or bad, doesn’t quite gibe with the assaults of the boundaries of taste that preceded and followed. I’d argue, however, that Lynch’s ongoing attraction to the outcasts of the world, those who are met with revulsion and derision by the supposedly normal denizens of a culture, is what makes this such a resonant, heartfelt work. His other efforts may frame that curiosity as a lurid fascination, appreciation merging with mockery in an indecipherable mass of twisty impressions, but Elephant Man is resolutely empathetic.
The film serves its subject well bu entirely sidestepping the maudlin. Despite clear temptations built right into the story to build the film otherwise, Lynch and his collaborators don’t make this a tale of saints and villains. Treves, played with exceptional care by Anthony Hopkins, may have effectively rescued Merrick from a life of squalor, but the good doctor is also wrenched by the moral dilemma of whether or not the overly attentive gaze of upper class–coupled with a unseemly self-congratulation over their embrace of the sad, hideous man–is just a more acceptable version of the exploitation Merrick endured as a carnival attraction. The film dares to consider whether this well-meaning assistance is its own form of callousness, and it does so with a firm intellect. These qualities are made more poignant by the piercing performance of John Hurt as John Merrick (the character is given a different first name for the film). Acting under pounds of prostheses and makeup, Hurt uses his eyes, his physicality, the timbre of his voice, basically every tool still at his disposal to share the inner tenderness and bruised soul of Merrick.
Shot in elegant black and white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, the film’s look enhances its sense of being set in a distant time while also conveying the enveloping sooty skies of an industrializing London. Lynch’s talent for visual poetry is in full evidence here. There’s tremendous amounts of emotion contained in individual shots, Lynch somehow developing intense feeling out of the simple way he constructs a shot, or often the stillness within the frame. These stylistic gifts imbue The Elephant Man with an odd and lovely ethereal concreteness, a sturdy sense of people and place that nonetheless drifts along hypnotically like dandelion seed heads on an insistent summer breeze. The film simply operates with the very refinement that is Merrick’s highest aspiration.