The Elephant Man was David Lynch’s first major studio motion picture. Of course, before 1980 he independently gave birth to Eraserhead (also on Schneider’s 1001) and a handful of other amazing and brutal short films. His first studio-funded major commercial piece, while still quite outside of a mass-market Hollywood film, is a beautiful experiment in bringing Lynch’s vision to a wide audience.
The film tells the story of the real-life John Merrick, a man with extensive physical deformities caused by a network of tumors that affected everything from his appearance to his speech, gait, and the simple act of sleeping. “Saved” from the exploitative grasp of the carnival circuit, John Merrick is brought to become a civilized, educated, and cultured man whose deformities and phoenix-esque rise to respectability in a situation that ends up being oddly just as exploitative as before he was saved. The result is a film that examines the difference between the cards we are dealt and how we play them once they are in our hands, and the very human cost of enlightenment. Lynch’s film presents the story through a black and white steampunk lens, strangely filmed in both an unusual manner for the nineteen-eighties but also using many of his unique stylistic and strange editing techniques that he has always been known for. The film almost serves as a metaphor for his career and the film itself, as he seems to balance what everyone wants to see with what he is incapable of ignoring in his expressive artistic techniques. The result is an exquisitely beautiful and strange film about an exquisitely beautiful and strange man. The performances of Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud are unmistakably masterful in this film, and the unrecognizable John Hurt’s remarkable portrayal of a man caught in the whirlwind of internal and external conflicts is subtle, masterful, and emotionally gripping.
This is one of those films that I had thought I had seen before, but actually hadn’t (all the way through, at least). As a huge fan of Lynch’s work, it’s absolutely clear where his stylistic elements creep and weave through this subtle and dramatically engaging film. The clearest is his use of strobe, intercut, and slow-motion audio throughout the piece – most notable in the genesis of Merrick himself. These moments are all easily recognizable in many of his other films such as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk With Me, and Twin Peaks 1, 2, and in many places in The Return (note: in all of these video links, spoilers abound). Surprisingly, there are also many direct textual connections to the film as well. As I watched this in the midst of The Return, the line about Sonny Jim immediately jumped out (even though this connection has been debunked as a British figure of speech).
The entire film is in many ways a perfect piece. It only pushes boundaries here and there, something that is clearly a move by Lynch to make the piece as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience. But when he pushes them, he pushes them hard. To release a black and white film in 1980 while maintaining a few bizarre yet steadfast artistic tropes that the general mass media audience may find unsettling, and still manage to bring home eight Academy Award nominations? That is something only David Lynch could accomplish using a savvy eye toward the needs of his audience, his industry, and the story of Merrick. A brilliant, beautiful, terrifying, and touching film, The Elephant Man examines the many ways in which our curiosity and our humanity exact great costs upon man’s enlightenment and assimilation. A strange and beautiful interpretation of a similarly heartbreaking and strange true story.