The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

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Technically, The Elephant Man is some type of masterpiece. Beautifully photographed in black & white widescreen by Freddie Francis and directed with only the slightest eye toward off-putting surrealism (injected to glorious effect in the astonishing theatrical montage toward the end) by David Lynch, and masterfully performed all around (Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, and Anne Bancroft are all superb, and John Hurt is simply extraordinary in the eponymous role), it’s a film of genuine atmosphere, a sumptuous tale well-told, and so convincing in its evocation of another time and place — Victorian Britain — that it seems to obliterate all that’s come since for its duration. The astounding, painstakingly realistic makeup by Christopher Tucker brings an almost mythical figure from the distant past to humane life; and Lynch’s oblique but logical visual sensibility is enough of a marvel that it has obviously played a major role in inspiring the visual motif of numerous films since, as witness much of Tim Burton’s career. Aesthetically, the movie can scarcely be faulted aside from a few awkward fades and jump cuts that seem to exist to emphasize its function as an old-fashioned studio melodrama.

In terms of its story and screenplay (loosely based on fact), the film is more problematic. Like many a suffering narrative on unattractive, misunderstood, diseased or extremely wronged people, The Elephant Man is more an idea for a representation of Oscar-grabbing compassion than a motion picture. Dave Kehr wrote correctly that the deepest emotion it conjures up is pity, which alas isn’t a very deep emotion at all. That’s not to say it isn’t quite stunning in many respects, but it’s also remarkably dishonest and should be regarded as such.

In the film, which makes one long for the less self-adoring simplicity of Tod Browning’s Freaks, Mr. Joseph Merrick (Hurt), the Elephant Man of the title, lives an oppressed life within the circus under the tyrannical, Zampano-like watch of drunken deadbeat jerkoff Bytes, creepily portrayed by Freddie Jones as a pathological weirdo with a near-perverted obsession. Merrick is rescued from this life of squalor by kindly but somewhat ambiguous and tortured Dr. Treves (Hopkins). This is where the manipulation of the film comes in. In actual fact, Merrick made a good and independent living off circus performing for a number of years and was treated, by his own accounts as well as those of Treves, extremely well. As much as the movies may depict sideshow life as demeaning, and as much as it may theoretically be for someone not comfortable with such an exhibition, Merrick does not seem to have been such a person. At any rate, it was entirely voluntarily that Merrick finally checked himself in under Treves’ care.

Depending on whose account you listen to, Treves may have become more of a charlatan at this point than any of Merrick’s carnival associations ever were. He did, after all, trot out his prized case for royalty, celebrities, the London elite. For Lynch and the script to acknowledge this — in a searing, self-loathing monologue from Hopkins — is commendable, but it is totally chickenshit for excusing the audience from agreeing with him, and for stacking the decks against the supposed dregs of the life Merrick actually made for himself.

Out of all the questions I could ask about The Elephant Man, I think the one that keeps lingering is about my overall skepticism of the way stories like this are generally told. The moments of well-intentioned condescension are many, but the key point is, why is that the disabled guy with the sack over his head is always the nicest, calmest, most serene individual that can be imagined? Why doesn’t he ever have flaws beyond the superficial? Why is he always a gentleman? Why does he never lash out, as any breathing mortal would, against his oppressors? Merrick is seemingly the most understanding sweetheart who ever lived. In other words, he’s not a human, he’s a robot, designed as much as possible as a saint far out of the reach of the audience. It’s a bloodless portrayal, despite all of Hurt’s power in bringing it to the screen.

All the truth of the story is dismissed in favor of generically functional Hollywood tearjerking. A real shame that the many great ideas of the film were not more expertly applied, but it’s a thin, trite narrative that trades mostly in platitudes. Lynch’s vapid fantasy sequence of Merrick’s “origin” early on, the out-of-place, spacey memorial that ends the picture, and the sequences of Londoners gawking at Merrick (with a strange motif of horny men taking prostitues to see him!?) all seem like bewildering interruptions from an entirely different film, but at least in those moments the film has some sort of personality. It’s beautiful all in all, but its beauty goes only as deep as the moralistic messages it constantly spoon-feeds its audience.

[Edited down from a 2007 review.]

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