Thursday, 20 October 2011

Shapeshifters Film Review 5: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980)

Fig. 1. The Elephant Man Poster

The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch is based on a true story about a man called Joseph Merrick (John in The Elephant Man) whose extreme physical deformities caused him to live an abnormal life. This film encompasses his later life when he encounters Dr. Treves played by Anthony Hopkins who attempts to “save” Merrick. Set in the late 19th century in a London that’s being changed by the Industrial Revolution, the film focuses on the social barrier that stops Merrick from becoming a normal member of society and that instead treats him as a freak. The social barrier is not only just limited to Merrick’s deformity but it’s also humanities lack to look past physical features of a person to see what they’re really worth from their actions,

“But he’s not one to pity himself, ask pity from others or be mistaken as brave, he’s just an iron will with a thirst for life who’d rather spend his time appreciating the gift horse in front of him rather than dwell on the hardships he’s had to endure. It’s a rare mind set to find from anyone, but the challenge with Merrick is being able to see it.” (Aiden R., 2011)
Fig. 2. Freak Show

Fig. 3. Mrs. Kendal

Only a handful of people in the film are able to see what a good man Merrick actually is but for the most part the commoners are shown gawking at him at the circus as part of a freak show. His deformity is an attraction for people, something to be disgusted by for amusement; no one ever tried to treat him as a human being. That’s where Dr. Treves comes in to view Merrick at the freak show, immediately being struck with pity and compassion, even to the point of shedding tears. Shortly after Treves takes Merrick off the hands of his “owner”; this can be seen as an act of kindness as he just wants to free him from the claws of the people that consider him a freak. This marked the beginning of hope for Merrick; someone finally giving him a chance to be viewed as a human.

“Therefore, he ends up working his way into the upper-class of society, receiving and entertaining many rich and refined visitors in his hospital room. But he still hasn’t escaped the freak show nature of these visits. It becomes clear that people aren’t visiting him out of any real interest for who he is, but that same morbid fascination that the lowest class of society exemplified.” (Ewing, 2010)
Fig. 4. Gentleman

However Dr. Treves intentions seem to falter as he tries to help Merrick join society; he means good but he eventually sees his mistake. First it was commoners staring at him in a freak show but then it was the upper class visiting him for tea in his room; different surroundings and people but still the same attraction. This shows a deep cruel nature in people; no matter if you’re a commoner or upper class you’re still the same if can’t look past a persons’ looks and into their heart whereas Merrick sees people as they truly are “That is the quality that illuminates this film and makes it far more fascinating than it would be were it merely a portrait of a dignified freak. Throughout the film one longs for an explosion. That it never comes is more terrifying, I think, than John Merrick's acceptance of the values of others is inspiring.” (Canby, 1980)

Aiden R. (2011) Cut the Crap Movie Reviews (Accessed on: 19.10.11)

Ewing, B. (2010) Cinema Sights (Accessed on: 19.10.11)

Illustration List
Fig. 1. Lynch, David (1980) The Elephant Man Poster At: (Accessed on: 19.10.11)

Fig. 2. Freak Show (1980) From: The Elephant Man Directed by: David Lynch [film still] USA: Brooksfilms At: (Accessed on: 19.10.11)

Fig. 3. Mrs. Kendal (1980) From: The Elephant Man Directed by: David Lynch [film still] USA: Brooksfilms At: (Accessed on: 19.10.11)
Fig. 4. Gentleman (1980) From: The Elephant Man Directed by: David Lynch [film still] USA: Brooksfilms At: (Accessed on: 19.10.11)

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