David Lynch is known for two things: mind-bending surrealism and an uncanny ability to terrify audiences through entirely unconventional means. His best films (Inland Empire, Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr.) tap into both realms through surrealistic nightmares of Freudian psycho-sexual imagery. I’ve been watching Twin Peaks lately (I’m near the beginning of Season 2), and in the episodes where Lynch has the biggest involvement, it too hits those high-notes. 1980s The Elephant Man is without question a Lynch film. His second directorial feature, it features Lynch’s sympathy with the bizarre and cast-aside. But it is also an almost uncharacteristically straight-forward exercise in Lynchean film-making. It lacks much of the surrealism that defines him as a director, and the structure of the film is remarkably simple by Lynch standards. It is also, perhaps, Lynch’s most thematically complex and emotionally rich picture so perhaps leaving the surrealistic flourishes at the door was the correct decision.
Though there is generally an over-riding theme to any given Lynch film (Blue Velvet = pulling back the curtain on suburban tranquility, Inland Empire = the borderline psychotic obsession of the best performers, Eraserhead = a Freudian nightmare of fatherhood), I also don’t think said themes are often the point of that particular Lynch work. They aren’t the reason that people obsess over his films. Lynch is a cinematic technician of the highest order and when modern directors like Gaspar Noé and others aspire to match his work (they rarely do), it is because they recognize his rightful standing as one of the great cinematic visualists. For the first time that I can remember, the visual nature of Lynch’s films takes a back seat (though trust me, it’s still there waiting in the wings) and instead The Elephant Man becomes an almost quiet mediation on cruelty and the perverse nature of voyeurism.
The Elephant Man is a very loose adaptation of the true story of 19th century Englishman Joseph Merrick (called John in the film and played by Alien‘s John Hurt), who suffers from a truly horrific series of bodily deformities that gives him such a frightening visage that he has been exploited by the circus and dubbed “The Elephant Man.” The film begins with respected British surgeon and anatomist, Frederick Treves (Thor‘s Anthony Hopkins), arriving at the circus and finding himself intrigued by this so-called Elephant Man display which is causing enough of a stir that the police force the circus owner, Bytes (Freddie Jones), to shut down that feature in his display of “freaks.” Treves requests a private viewing where he sees John Merrick for the first time and is struck to tears by the man’s disfigured frame. Treves strikes a monetary deal with Bytes and utilizes John in a medical forum on anatomical abnormalities before returning John to Bytes, under the impression that Merrick can’t speak or understand English.
When John returns to the circus, he gets bronchitis and when Bytes realizes he can’t beat it out of John, he calls Treves back to fix his prized possession. And after an extended stay at the Royal British Hospital, Treves discovers that John is actually capable of speech and has known how to read for most of his life, a fact he’s hidden to avoid beatings from Bytes. After convincing the hospital’s governor, Carr Gomm (The Charge of the Light Brigade‘s John Gielgud), of John’s intelligence, Treves becomes John’s permanent caretaker and mentor. And, though Treves realizes he initially exploited John in a manner similar to Bytes, Treves tries to atone for his early selfishness by helping to integrate John into the upper echelons of British society and to give him a life of comfort and happiness that has constantly eluded him. But, the cruelty and wanton stares that have haunted Merrick his whole life will need more than Treves’s good intentions to disappear.
John Hurt received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his turn as John. For the first thirty or so minutes of the film, I actually thought that Treves was the true main character of the piece, but once John begins actually speaking, he takes his rightful place as the emotional center of the film. Though some could accuse Lynch of portraying Merrick as being inspirationally disadvantaged in a Forrest Gump-esque manner, I actually think the film is a deconstruction of that trope. John’s utilization as a “freak” that happens to be well-spoken and the hottest ticket in upper British society is treated as the exploitation it is, and one of the greatest scenes of the film is Anthony Hopkins (also in a brilliant performance) wondering if he is a good man or a bad man for what he is done. John’s circle in life isn’t complete until he’s truly accepted as a peer by these men and not some novelty for their dissection (and when that finally occurred, I was, of course, in tears).
Here’s a fun fact about The Elephant Man that you may not be aware of. The Best Makeup category at the Academy Awards was invented because of this movie. There was not a category to honor the make-up work in The Elephant Man in 1980, and only a vague special citation had been given in the citation category in the past. If you’ve seen The Elephant Man, you know how absurdly well-done John’s makeup is. I’ve seen photographs of the actual Joseph Merrick, and John Hurt is made to look practically just like him. I miss the pre-2000s days of actual physical special effects. If The Elephant Man were made today, Merrick would probably be some type of CGI creation, and it would rob him of his basic humanity. As an actual physical creation, John becomes a marvelous feat of technical wizardry that looks phenomenal 33 years later.
That both this and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People for Best Director and Best Picture (and to Polanski’s Tess, which is at least a great film, for Best Cinematography) has to be one of the most absurd moments in Academy history. I mentioned that this is one of Lynch’s more subtle films, but I don’t mean that as an insult. His strength as a visually arresting director are still on full display (though his usual surrealist touches are left to dream sequences that are explicitly such). The Elephant Man is shot in a beautiful black-and-white, and in general, the movie’s visual style is an homage to German expressionism of the Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau vareity as well as subtle shout-outs to the Tod Browning cult film, Freaks. Considering the look of this and Eraserhead, part of me wishes that Lynch might have stuck to black & white though his color films are just as good. The movie’s sound design is nearly as interesting as its visual direction as it turns into some nightmare of industrialization.
I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to eat lunch and watch (ironically enough perhaps) some more of season two of Twin Peaks. I didn’t have much time to dive into the thematic statements of the film. The movie is particularly effective in making the audience feel guilty for wanting to know what John looks like. You become as much of a bastard as those that hound him at the train station (which provides the film’s most famous sequence). The Elephant Man provides something that few Lynch films ever do (and this is coming from a huge fan). It provides actual emotional context. The Elephant Man is an almost overwhelmingly sad experience but not in a cheap, exploitative way. This is a David Lynch film for that aren’t generally David Lynch fans.
Final Score: A-