No 362 – The Elephant Man
Director – David Lynch
There are two things in particular which I intend to focus on in this blog. Firstly, my surprise that this is a David Lynch film, secondly the fact that John Merrick was a real person (though he was actually called Joseph Merrick fact fans) and that therefore this story is based in truth.
I have a John Merrick biography which I attempted to read over the summer. I found it a bit too intense, too heavy and sad to read on a poolside in France. However as the winter months draw in it might be worth crack it out and reading up on the poor man.
However, first things first. I wish to talk about Lynch and the visual style of this film. I have a bit of a confused relationship with David Lynch, the first film I saw of his was Eraserhead which scared me to pieces. Ever since then, his films have left me feeling confused and uncomfortable. Yet with Elephant Man we have a fairly normal story. A story with a clear overarching plot, with a linear story and with only the merest hint of midgets.
What I loved was the feel of the film. It felt like an old film. This is more than merely being in black and white. There is something that ekes out of every element of the film. The lighting, the framing, the way that characters talk, the grainy stock footage. It is difficult to put your finger on the exact reason but the film feels old. It feels like the kind of films that were made in the 40s and are now shown on BBC2 or Channel 4 on a weekday afternoon.
It is a very unusual visual aesthetic, I’m pretty sure that it was filmed entirely in a studio, even the few outdoor shots feel like they were in a studio. The way that the film was made means it never looks or feels like a film made in 1980. It feels much older, and it is only the occasional nightmare sequence which brings back the disturbing horror that is so classically Lynchian. Obscure images and overlaying moments, discordant sounds and frantic editing. It all jars against the antiquated feel of the rest of the film, yet feels right for a nightmare sequence.
But then, Lynch always does excellent dreams.
The fact that these nightmare sequences are the exception rather than the norm means that this is the most accessible of Lynch’s films.
It is, however, also the saddest. The film includes a series of elements which combine into a heartbreaking depiction and story.
Firstly, the whole notion of freak shows are horrible. Films like Tod Browning's Freaks made the brotherhood of circus freaks feel somewhat glamorous, or at least a loving family. Carnivale makes it all seem a bit like a struggle but essentially an adventure. However, this film shows the freak circuit for what it is. Exploitation. The dirt, the squalor, the abuse, the cages. The depiction is really quite horrific and quite distressing. It is made all the more worse when you begin to relate with the character of Merrick. This is down entirely to John Hurt in a phenomenal performance.
I mean look at John Hurt. Now look at his character. He is 90% facial make up. In fact, probably more than that because they've expanded so much on the size of his head. And yet, despite the vast amount of make up or prosthetics, his performance is really moving. See the point where John Merrick speaks to the wife of Dr Treeves for the first time. After a polite conversation he bursts into tears. Surprised and moved that a lady has been so kind to him. The single scene encapsulates both the delicate nature of Merrick but also the abuse he has suffered in the past. It is a very moving scene and a fantastic performance, showing Hurt's skill at creating emotion from quite an emotionless mass of tumor.
I've been a huge fan of Hurt for quite some time and this film shows why. It is such a deep and all encompassing performance showing the resignation, fear and latterly anger towards his mistreatment but also his love and joy and excitement as he becomes involved with high society. Again, look at the rapturous joy when he first reads Shakespeare or first goes to the theatre. Truly moving.
The final, and most traumatic, aspect of the film is the behaviour of 75% of the rest of the characters. When compared with the delicacy and quiet dignity of Merrick the other characters come off as quite detestable. Anthony Hopkins' Dr Treeves fears that what he is doing is just another form of the spectacle and exploitation that Merrick had been exposed to. But at least he shows Merrick respect. At least he treats Merrick as an equal. It is in scenes with Bytes, the freakshow owner, or Michael Elphick's hospital porter that you see the real evil of people.
It is this element that makes me want to read the book, because it can't be that horrible.
Of course, the people of Victorian times would not be so kind to people they saw as different. Specially not so horrific an illness as Merrick's condition. However whilst I'm aware he would have been treated poorly, I'd hate to think that people really did used to sneak to his hospital rooms to exploit and abuse him.
In all these films it is impossible to know what is based on truth and what is based on the myth, or expanded upon for the sake of the story.
However, even if we take away the 'based on a true story' element, we are faced with a beautiful and moving tale of a Victorian gentleman dealing with impossible odds.
If it turns out to be true, it is heartbreaking.