David Lynch is a director who is, to put lightly, difficult to write about. Like the works of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, Lynch’s films are surreal and ambiguous art that are genuinely unforgettable. That being stated, most of his films are so surreal that they feel alienating. They are also so divisive that most people, including critics, cannot agree on what are his classic films. It is maddening, even for me. Nevertheless, The Elephant Man is a straightforward film by Lynch’s standards but his surreal flourishes make this film very unique. The Elephant Man is a biographical film about John Merrick, a man famous for being horrifically disfigured and disabled by a series of enormous tumors. Specifically, the film is about Merrick’s transition from a carnival attraction to a source of medical studying at the London Hospital for his remaining years. The premise alone is heartbreaking but what make this film unique is how David Lynch stylized the picture.
To put simply, David Lynch made The Elephant Man to look like Frankenstein. It was shot in black and white, thick shadows that cover lavish sets, and has a string based musical score that evokes ideas of fear and loneliness. The idea sound exploitive but it works because Lynch intelligently uses this style reveal the exploitation of Merrick. Since Frankenstein’s Creature and Merrick a born to a world that is violently fearful to things they do not understand, whether it is science or physical defects, one cannot watch this film without recognizing a tragic parallel.
Of course the film is not just Lynch implicitly waging a finger at those who have laugh and mocked a person’s appearance for two hours, the tale is more nuanced than that thanks to a fantastic acting ensemble. John Hurt is unrecognizable as John Merrick but he never lets his elaborate make up do the acting for him; through a carefully soft tone of voice and use of his environment, Hurt portrays the modest yet self-aware Merrick perfectly. The best of all is Anthony Hopkins portrayal as Merrick’s doctor Frederick Treves. Hopkins’ Treves is fascinating because conflicted he of his own method. Treves is a man who thought he did the right thing by taking Merrick out of the circus, but he still on display in the hospital, it is just a cleaner circus. To see Hopkins’ character begin to realize his own hypocrisy is a morose but subtle transformation.
Even though it is one of David Lynch’s simpler films The Elephant Man is still a difficult film to watch. It could have easily gone down the path of Radio or Rain Man by appraising a Merrick for merely existing but instead it dabbles into the implications of how people interact with people him. Was he being exploited? Did people truly love him as a person? Do such implications even matter as long as Merrick is happy? The Elephant Man is sad and at times uncomfortable to watch but it is also a poetic and beautifully acted film that deserves to be seen.