Wednesday, 13 October 2010

David Lynch's 'The Elephant Man', 1980

I was really worried about watching this film. I'd heard it was really well made and also really sad.  I'd heard about the disease and seen some images from documentaries about it but you just can't comprehend what it must be like to live with such a deformity.  I'm normally easily upset in films if there's something there that's particularly emotional and this film is just devastating. It doesn't help that you know exactly what's going to happen and you can do nothing but watch this poor person go through an awful life only to take his own life  because he can't live with his disfigurement any more.  It was shown in a rather beautiful and deeply moving scene at the end. John decides, after a wonderful evening at the theatre, to finally sleep as a 'normal' person would and by doing so killing himself.

To know this is close to what really happened though it's just devastating.  Of course, the film would be no where near as effective if it hadn't been so wonderfully acted by John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins as John's guardian and friend.  I believe that Kim Newman writing for Empire sums it up beautifully when she describes the leading performances as "astonishingly subtle. John Hurt allows humanity to shine through impressive make-up as the multiply-deformed Merrick, who retains a childlike gentleness no matter how sorely he has been abused".

On the subject of  John Hurt's make-up, much like Jeff Goldblum in 'The Fly', 1986, it seemed like he should be unable to portray anything under that much prosthetics but it seems to only encourage his acting ability and make it blossom as the actors struggle to speak beneath the fake teeth and mouth disfigurement means it only creates more realism to the character. The audience can really see what this man could've been like when he was alive.  Something that adds to the realism greatly is the fact that David Lynch revealed that he was allowed to use the London Hospital's plaster cast of Joseph Merrick's head, taken after he'd died, to study and combine with John Hurt's own head.  He said that Chris Tucker, Make-up creator for 'the Elephant Man', "could take John Hurt's head and John Merrick's head and work the two out. So it's completely authentic. It's exact." How fantastic that they were allowed to use the London Hospitals own copy of Mr. Merrick's anatomy.

Though this film is fairly conventional, David Lynch who is known for his surrealism in film manages to put his stamp on it.  There are many series of images that flow and fade into each other in a really dream-like way.  Due to the narrative being set in Victorian London there's a heavy use of smoke/fog, roaring mechanical noises and some machinery being thrust back and forth menacingly.  Though this all sounds fairly normal due to the context of the film among these more conventional symbols are woven images of elephants and their booming trumpetting along side the mother of John Merrick being terrified and attacked by one (the theory during the time was that if you were scared by of something when you were pregnant then you would leave some kind of physical imprint on your unborn child). One combination of the flesh of the men working loud machinery rolling into the roar of elephants, into fog and then into the overlapping image of John's mother screaming, is a very powerful experience.  It's incredibly unsettling, especially as its all silent except for the roaring machines or elephants.

Another interesting aspect of the film was that the director chose to never truly reveal John Merrick to us until more than 30 minutes in. Our first real experience of him was during Treves' lecture about him when we are lead to believe we'll see him but as the curtains are opened the camera cuts to the back of John and we only see his silhouette.  An interesting interpretation of this is from Todd McGowan, he believes that "the dramatic editing in this scene serves to accentuate the impossibility of Merrick's body, it's inability to exist within the world of representation." I think this is really interesting because the time in which the film is set, the Victorian period, had some experience of deformity but nothing on this level.  This interpretation of the editing would support that the audience is being placed in the same mind-set of the Victorian viewers, that the body is so beyond anything you've ever seen before that you're allowed to only see the silhouette.  The viewer will be unable to comprehend poor Mr. Merrick's condition and so neither can the camera.

Fantastic film! I was incredibly moved by the character's love of everyone that spoke to him and cared for him and the life he'd been given by the Doctor Treves. I can only hope that the real Joseph Merrick was as content when he died as John was *sniff*.


  1. Hey Molly, you have great eye for a killer quote: "the dramatic editing in this scene serves to accentuate the impossibility of Merrick's body, it's inability to exist within the world of representation." This is so insightful of you. I've noticed this about your previous reviews. You've got a good critical sensibility, Molly - and it bodes well. Good stuff! :-)

  2. YAY! Thank you! I really hope so! :D