The Elephant Man ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The first in an in-progress triple bill of Lynch By Inch: David Lynch, Ranked!

I had previously dismissed The Elephant Man as mid-tier Lynch, a Hollywood effort primarily interesting in charting how his career got out of the experimental ghetto it could have found itself stuck in. What an idiot I was. The Elephant Man is a film of genius, a profoundly human work that brings surrealism into the halls of the Academy. The opening photograph could have been taken by Man Ray, with its hazy shadows delineating the contours of an ambiguous facial expression. The montage it dissolves into is straight out of Eraserhead, both in its silent-era special effects and its evocation of a naïve cosmology of pre-existence and conception in space. Even the image of Joseph Merrick (here renamed John, as he was in Frederick Treves's source memoir) with a bag over his head, historically accurate though it is, brings to mind Rene Magritte's painting The Lovers.

Could such a heady mix gatecrash the Kodak Theatre today? It seems a long way from a ceremony that thinks Inherent Vice is too weird.

The Elephant Man relocates the smoke-blackened industrial world of Eraserhead in the birthplace of heavy industry, Victorian London. Its monochrome, high-contrast style is also reminiscent of Lynch's early film, and despite having some fifty times the budget it sticks to a rigidly claustrophobic mise en scene. The hospital bedroom where Treves treats Merrick has the feel of a tiny little animated set, with only a window to break up the rough paintbrush strokes on the wall. Even the exteriors are cluttered and alarming, and at one point Michael Elphick's macabre porter treats a fight between two grotesquely bleeding women with the same perplexed disregard as Henry X does the one going on outside his bedroom window.

Where The Elephant Man is an advance on Eraserhead is in its empathy. In the earlier film, Henry is the only character with any humanity, but Merrick is Henry and Henry's baby rolled into one being, a supremely pitiful and relatable creation. There's also a rare sighting in Lynch's films of a genuinely ambiguous morality as Treves (a mercurial, Byronic young Anthony Hopkins) is challenged on whether his desire to treat and understand Merrick's incurable condition is really anything more than a high-toned version of the gawping Merrick is subjected to at the freak show. Lynch disagrees, I think, but he and his screenwriters Christopher de Vore and Eric Bergren allow the audience to contemplate this and come up with their own conclusion.

When The Elephant Man was released, David Denby detected a horror of the ordinary man in it, pointing to the famous scene in which he roars "I am not an animal! I am a human being!" at a crowd of working-class Londoners who chase him around a train station. Denby noted that this was immediately contrasted with the famous actress Madge Kendal (a supremely affecting Anne Bancroft) leading a whole theatre full of upscale folk in a round of applause for Merrick.

Well, firstly I would say it's hard to research the history of freak shows and come away with any great faith in the goodness of the common man. But more importantly, both these scenes are followed by Merrick's terminal decision to lie his head down and go to sleep, knowing this action will kill him. What this juxtaposition means, for me, is that neither the morbid fascination of the poor nor the charity of the rich will satisfy Merrick's true desire - to be ordinary, to be unseen and unremarked-upon by all. And what a poignant symbol of normality Lynch has chosen. Can there be any greater tragedy for a Lynch hero than the inability to sleep normally, and therefore to dream?

The performances are excellent and assured all across the board, another leap forward from Eraserhead's necessarily limited acting. John Hurt deserves special mention for the utter egolessness of his role - normally when an actor wears prosthetics this extreme for a role, there's at least one shot of their normal features to reassure the audience it really is them, but Merrick is a prisoner of his disfigurement, and Hurt locks himself in there with him. His emotions are utterly raw and compelling even through Chris Tucker's layers of still-impressive make-up. John Morris's score often works in a carnival register that, today, we might associate more with Tim Burton than David Lynch, but there are some almost ambient washes (when Treves first sees Merrick, for instance) which point the way ahead to Angelo Badalamenti.

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