“Looks are deceiving” would be an adequate way to describe the “The Elephant Man” as a film from the outside, but it would be a horribly amateur way to describe its message. David Lynch’s film soars beyond mere pity for those with life-altering physical abnormalities and serves as more than just a slap on the wrist to a generally unsympathetic public. It is a study of the human condition and Lynch’s camera a microscope examining one of its most fragile examples.
Taking place in Victorian London and filmed like a classic ’30s or ’40s film in black and white, “The Elephant Man” carries that classic naive sensibility that combined with the hideous deformities of its central character, creates a bit of horror and suspense before it appeals to our better nature by eliciting sympathy and understanding.
John Merrick (John Hurt) is “The Elephant Man” to the abusive owner exploiting him in a freak show, but when Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a doctor studying anatomy, finds him and sees him for the first time, a tear runs down Hopkins’ face in a powerful close-up and the doctor brings him to hospital, nursing him to health and soon socializing him.
It’s a fascinating story. For the first half hour we’re hooked by sheer curiosity over what John looks like and how he came to be, a technique that catches one of our most unflattering flaws in that we gape at the unknown and the abnormal. It then shows us more and more of John, slowly unveiling his humanity, and suddenly we’re converted and incredibly protective of this unusual character.
The film provides an array of human reactions to seeing/meeting someone so terribly disfigured. Treves’ wife, for example, cries uncontrollably out of pity, a famous actress treats him like a fascinating human being, a nurse screams at the sight of him and sadly many exploit him. This broad spectrum fully puts you in John’s shoes and leaves you with incredible insight into his unique situation.
As a filmmaker, Lynch leads us quite easily to our own discoveries about what John’s story teaches us. He nudges us toward symbolism without beating us with it and cuts away from scenes just as we react to them instead of giving moments of pause and total resolution. This creates a totally different reaction to what happens in a scene. It’s raw, unresolved, maybe even troubling — but it works and we manage to understand the significance better because he pulls us away at a moment of tension.
There are some abstract techniques and shots bookending the film in short scenes with John’s mother, but little else is cryptic. Lynch really draws out the similarities and differences between John as an uncared for circus attraction and John as the fascinating man everyone wants to meet, which is the heart of both our and Treves’ moral dilemma. Then, as John runs away from a mob at a London train station, we get that simple but powerful line: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a man!” and suddenly it all clicks. Now that’s fantastic film-making.