Whenever sitting down to watch a David Lynch film, there’s always a slight menace in the air. Most of his films undo the idea of film as entertainment and venture into the realm of film-as-mind-bending-philosophy.
The Elephant Man is an exception to this rule. Aside from a few Lynch-ian moments, it is a poignant and fairly classical story about John Merrick (John Hurt), the Victorian-era ‘Elephant man’ who finds a sympathetic friend in surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). The film follows his development from unspeaking side-show freak to a warm gentleman with a passion for reading and theatre.
The performances and characters in The Elephant Man are uncharacteristically classical. There are none of the morally rotten, Oedipally-twisted villains you’d expect to see in most Lynch films. In fact, the main villains in the film are fairly hapless Cockneys looking to exploit Merrick’s deformities for money. As such, one never gets the feeling that things will turn out too badly for Merrick.
And nor would we want them to, for the performances given by Hopkins and John Hurt oscillate between touching and painfully tragic. The slow, sometimes frustrating, process Treves goes through of bringing Merrick out of his shell is felt strongly by the viewer. While Merrick’s utterances at first sound horrifying, we grow to sympathise with them and, eventually, admire his ability to overcome them.
Almost as if to remind us that Lynch hasn’t suddenly converted into a director working within classical narrative conventions, the film is laced with dark moments of abstraction, eerie industrial noises and regular reminders that all of us – even Elephant Men – have mummy issues. Lynch uses plenty of super-imposition throughout the film in a way that delves into the mind, and past, of Merrick. Many of these scenes focus on Merrick attempting to overcome the absurd, painful image imposed upon him that he was conceived by his beloved mother being raped by an elephant; only in confronting and escaping this image, can he accept himself as human.
The Elephant Man fits into the rare category of being a non-sentimental tear-jerker. While the narrative places Merrick on a positive journey towards becoming ‘normal’, it is inevitable that he never fully reaches that point, and is doomed to remain a spectacle of one sort or another. The Victorian-era freakshow backdrop to the film should not distract from the film being a mirror on contemporary society’s obsession with external appearances, and relentless ‘othering’ of anything that does not fit into our limited idea of normality.
Best scene: Merrick’s desperate but determined cry, ‘I am not an animal, I am a human being!’ Powerful.