“It makes me uncomfortable to talk about meanings and things. It’s better not to know so much about what things mean. Because the meaning, it’s a very personal thing, and the meaning for me is different than the meaning for somebody else.”
– David Lynch, director
Supreme filmmaking. The Elephant Man (1980) is a peerless look at 1880’s London, the high society and the low where John Merrick dwelled as a circus freak before being saved, and plays like a window into history. John Hurt is the actor who disappears without a trace under the makeup to play the extremely facially deformed Merrick, said to be the ugliest man who ever lived. Anthony Hopkins brings intelligence and a decent conscience to his role as Doctor Frederick Treves who plucks Merrick from the abusive sideshow.
This was David Lynch’s second film – as much a masterpiece as the underground masterpiece “Eraserhead” (1977) he made by raising his own money – and this was his first within a studio system. Artistic passion is evident in every single frame. “The Elephant Man” is perhaps the finest black & white cinematography you will ever see. “Raging Bull” came out the same year, and I think the lighting, shadowing, framing is more accomplished here. I don’t think it’s out of line to say it is as rich and immersive a visual experience as “Citizen Kane,” maybe more.
Freddie Francis is the credited cinematographer, and together with Lynch, they create a foggy gaslights London, old century hospital made of bare elements, hallucinatory dream sequences of industrial age claustrophobia. The opening and closing scenes have been debatable, suggesting a rape of the mother by Merrick by elephants and an apparition drifting into outer space. Lynch has said in interviews that this is surrealism, for he was less interested in fact than he was with inciting gut emotion in his viewers.
What is known by fact is that Merrick was given his own quarters within a hospital care system to be studied, and was trained to elevate his slurs into better speech (the film alludes to this in a minor way). Dr. Treves gives Merrick friends to interact with, but there are doubts of whether letting Merrick mingle with high society gentry is in fact turning him into a different kind of sideshow attraction amongst the rich. Hopkins plays the perceptive doctor as a man burdened with guilt with his own decision-making.
Not everything is grim. There are kind people, too, like theater artist Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) who befriends him with sobering intentions. There is true love for Merrick there, and delicately implied among a few others, too, left for you to find.
It’s also impossible to deter the inevitable depression of Merrick, being chosen as life’s unlucky one, and Hurt in the role brings a peerless poignancy to his sensitive nature.
This is one of the most emotional experiences of film you can have, but it is indescribable why it is that way. I feel different things while watching it, tapping different relative associations scene to scene. This is a narrative film, that’s actually usual for the very avante-garde David Lynch, but viewing after viewing I still find my responses to it to be a mystery. And I keep pondering over it, with sadness and self-examination all the same. And that cinematography keeps stirring things inside me. There are more than a hundred stupendous images in the film.
Currently, Bradley Cooper is winning raves on Broadway for his lead role in the reprisal for “The Elephant Man,” and has said it was the film that got him interested in acting.
124 Minutes. Rated PG.
DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / LATE NIGHT TEARJERKER
Film Cousins: “The Miracle Worker” (1962); “The Wild Child” (1969, France); “Mask” (1985); “Crumb” (1995).