Director David Lynch pushes the repulse button in audiences although he has a legion of adoring followers. The Elephant Man (1980), which Lynch directed, is no exception.
Lynch’s debut Eraserhead, 1984’s science fiction dud Dune, through to the undecipherable, murky, and unforgettable Mullholland Drive, and others, leave moments of stone-cold repulsion pulsating through the veins of audiences. It’s the sensations that put off audiences or thrill fans. But sensations aren’t good enough.
At least The Elephant Man is a little different for a David Lynch film. It’s got a quite bit of soul although this black and white film is a little cold and clinical and disturbing like other Lynch films.
It’s not so much that Lynch goes out of his way to shock us, but the severity of Merrick’s deformities, the cold street life of poverty in Victorian England, and the distance one feels following the story, is almost all consuming. However, The Elephant Man was a prestige film and an Oscar contender for Best Picture.
The Elephant Man hinges on a rare subject—severe disfigurement.
Set in Victorian England, poverty drives some people to do anything to make a buck out of “different” people. Some poor people made money out of “Fat Ladies” and “Strong Men”. “The Elephant Man” was John Merrick’s stage name.
Though Merrick was in a “freak show”, a sensitive and compassionate doctor, played by Anthony Hopkins, convinces Merrick’s owner to hand him over on medical grounds, for Merrick is not in good health. The doctor offers the owner cash as the incentive.
The doctor gives Merrick a place to stay in a hospital where he is safe more so or less so. In a harrowing scene, he does have to contend with the annoyances of pestering folk who know where to find him and make fun of him.
The film ends on a haunting, disturbing note that underlines the severity of his condition and how it affected his life.
Society would do better in the future for others facing similar predicaments with the introduction of universal laws to outlaw freak shows, advancements in health care, and education about unusual medical conditions.
The Elephant Man says a more humane treatment is the way people like Merrick will get along better.
The Elephant Man has disturbing moments like those of a Lynch film but was one out of the box. It’s tangibly compassionate and we may sense Merrick’s goodness and grieve over the moments when he’s vulnerable, this helpless but courageous, intelligent and good man.
The Elephant Man (1980) Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft. Director: David Lynch.