Beauty of a Beast
Fernando F. Croce on The Elephant Man

The iconic David Lynch moment comes early on in The Elephant Man: a character parts the curtains before a doorway and ventures down the rabbit hole. The character is Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), an established surgeon in late 19th-century London, incongruous in elegant top hat and tie as he uneasily makes his way through the flaming pinwheels and calliope jangle of a raucous carnival. Entering an exhibit named “Freaks,” he passes through a string of sideshow dwellers and comes upon a particular attraction, one that’s been shut down after being declared “monstrous” by the local authorities. As drawn to subterranean netherworlds as later Lynchian protagonists, Treves arranges for a private showing of the banned exhibition and meets John Merrick (played by John Hurt, under layers of makeup), the grievously deformed young man who’s been put on debasing display as one of life’s pathetic “surprises” by the carny Bytes (Freddie Jones). Though Merrick’s misshapen head and body are hinted at in the half-shadows of Bytes’s underground quarters, his appearance is first registered through the doctor’s dismayed reaction, his mouth agape as tears roll down his cheeks.

Envisioned by a different director, this extended introduction might have amounted to a morbid striptease. In Lynch’s hands, however, the build-up to Merrick’s entrance creates a subtle and potent blend of compassion and voyeurism, with Treves’s desire to track down this “Elephant Man” suggesting both an acute sensitivity to another creature’s suffering and a polite yet unmistakable hunger for forbidden spectacle. Lynch is a filmmaker equally beguiled by subconscious emotional stirrings and tangible physical textures, so it’s not surprising that Merrick displays an abstractly fanciful side while remaining overwhelmingly corporeal. Following the opening credits, a brief sequence—the film’s most explicitly surreal interlude—contrasts the genteel stasis of a portrait of a beautiful Victorian lady with the ominous animal movement of a horde of elephants lumbering toward the camera. The two extremes literally collide as one of the jumbos violently knocks down the woman, whose screaming face is blurred by the slow-mo into a smudged Edvard Munch figure. The screen fades to black, and an infant’s distorted wail emanates from a puff of smoke. Churning with intimations of bestial violation, this nightmarish prologue visualizes the sideshow barker’s explanation of Merrick’s warped appearance (his mother was supposedly trampled by pachyderms “on an uncharted African island”) as the onset of a dark fable in which the ogre is the tragic protagonist rather than the villain.

Lynch continues to unveil Merrick bit by bit—a wheezing moan here, a bent silhouette there—before exposing the totality of his disfigurement once he’s brought by Treves to the London Hospital. A young nurse goes to the isolation ward and screams at the sight of the new patient, and by then the emotional sting of the moment stems more from the beast’s startled reaction than from the beauty’s disgusted recoil. The Elephant Man belongs to a lineage of wounded-outsider films that includes Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, François Truffaut’s The Wild Child, and Werner Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. None of those earlier pictures, however, were as confrontational as Lynch’s film in portraying the outcast’s very flesh as a prison. His body covered with outgrowths of bone and spongy skin, his hair scraggly on a bulging forehead and his mouth twisted almost into a vertical line, Merrick at first seems, to quote Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “about as shapeless as the man in the moon.” As his appearance is gradually revealed to be a grotesque shell weighting down on a gentle sensibility, his hideousness—placed matter-of-factly in the classical surroundings—achieves a strangely serene quality, embodying Balzac’s dictum of “some inner secretion” altering an ugly man’s features “the minute he expresses a strong and genuine affection.”

No less than Merrick’s body and soul, his city is an entity at odds with itself. Graceful drawing rooms and soot-covered cobblestone streets, sparkling theaters and dank sweatshops: London may be on the cusp of the new century, but to Lynch this is still the land of Jekyll and Hyde. Working in black and white with cinematographer Freddie Francis and editor Anne V. Coates, both British cinema veterans, Lynch creates a feeling of sensuous surfaces continuously roused by unsettled elements. Even the hospital, with its humane personnel and antiseptic corridors, hums with sinister hissing noises and clanking gears, and a scene of Treves operating on a worker’s charred torso hints at the monstrous facets of the industrial revolution. (“Abominable things, these machines,” the doctor says, up to his elbows in blood and grease. “You cannot reason with them.”) It’s also here that the apparently clear-cut divide between cultured, well-meaning bourgeois types like Treves and the coarse proletariat—personified by an exploitative porter played with Sykes-like brutishness by Michael Elphick—suggests that Lynch could be easily grouped with the “radical conservative” artists listed by Michael Sicinski in his recent Cinema Scope article on Terence Davies. Even so, the director’s intuitive affinities for the mysterious over the ordinary complicate any hint of Manichean smugness: the high-society swells clamoring for tea with Merrick come off like twits congratulating themselves on their own supposed enlightenment, while the most tender moments are reserved for the dwarves and strongmen who gather around him like runaways from a Todd Browning circus.

It’s only fitting that a tale about a shocking man introduced into a respectable society would mark this uncompromising filmmaker’s own entrance into mainstream cinema after his 1977 cult hit Eraserhead. Submerged as it is beneath layers of period-piece prestige, The Elephant Man is not a director-for-hire project but a trove of images and situations which turn up in Lynch’s subsequent work. When Elphick’s porter leads a rowdy batch of drunks and prostitutes into Merrick’s room for a bout of humiliation, it’s like a PG-rated rehearsal for Frank Booth’s roadside thrashing of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet; the sugar plum fairy floating across the stage during a production of Puss in Boots might be the same who materializes at the climaxes of Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The most evocative link lies perhaps in the closing images, after the content Merrick (“My life is full, because I know I am loved”) decides to leave his body and the camera follows his spirit into the stars. The Straight Story, Lynch’s other “regular” film, ends on just such a vision, and in both cases the sense is one of sublime fulfillment. As the cosmos fills the screen, the photograph of Merrick’s mother reappears, and, like in those magical seconds in La Jetée, flickers to life to murmur the final words of Tennyson’s poem (“Nothing will die”). It’s the ideal finish for a fusion of inner and outer space that fully justifies the director’s famous insistence on watching movies uninterrupted on the big screen.

The Elephant Man played June 30 and July 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.