The Elephant Man (1980) is often cited as David Lynch’s most accessible film; a relatively straight-forward biopic in contrast to his other more experimental work. Yet this departure from the surreal for Lynch is seamless. While retaining a few instances of his trademark techniques the more classic linear storytelling style is perfectly balanced and beautifully crafted, creating an absorbing and heart-wrenchingly tragic film.
It is the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely deformed man exhibited in various traveling freak shows as ‘the Elephant Man’ in the late nineteenth century. Beginning with an abstract interpretation of his birth, the film then moves to see Merrick on show as the Elephant Man and charts his life as a permanent resident in London Hospital and his relationship with Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), his liberator and friend.
Lynch explores the theme of voyeurism using eyes a central motif, frequently challenging the viewer’s perception of the gaze and its power. Jacques Lacan defines the gaze as the anxious state arising from the awareness that one can be viewed and the loss of power upon the realisation that we are a visible object. As a grotesque curiosity, Merrick is subject to the dehumanising power of the gaze of others; he is literally exhibited as an object. Lynch exploits this idea, drawing out the viewer’s first glimpse of Merrick. He remains hooded and silent in his first visit to the hospital, a shuffling, stumbling figure vocalising only though his rasping breathing. As Treves removes Merrick’s hood for the first time, the picture fades to black, denying the viewer’s gaze and further piquing their curiosity. This creates in the viewer a parallel reaction to the freak show attendees, forcing the viewer to challenge their instinctive objectification of Merrick by denying their gaze.
The next glimpse the viewer receives of Merrick is his shadow projected onto a hospital screen as Treves holds a lecture analysing Merrick’s anatomy before an audience of his colleagues. Lynch focuses in medium close-up on the reactions of the audience, subverting the power of the camera’s gaze to highlight the effect Merrick has on the viewer at second hand. So, when we finally see Merrick after this long build-up, our gaze is heavily laden with the voyeuristic implications of its latent power.
Indeed, as knowledge of Merrick’s residence at the hospital spreads he begins to receive visitors from the other end of the social spectrum. Now dressed in a suit and installed in more comfortable rooms, his hood and hat remain prominently in shot during these visits, reminding us how far he has come. Yet Merrick remains the object of the curious gaze; still drawing in the crowds an exhibit. When fitting out Merrick’s new permanent rooms at the London Hospital the matron insists that no mirrors are to, under any circumstances, be brought into his rooms. In denying Merrick a glimpse of his own reflection, the matron seeks not to upset him by confronting him with his deformities, however, it also perpetuates the denial of the power of Merrick’s personal gaze. Lacan regards the moment that we acknowledge our own reflection (the mirror stage) as the formative function of the “I”; a decisive turning point in the mental development of a child and a permanent structure of subjectivity. Without this, Merrick remains an object to the other. The recurring visions and dreams of his mother’s eyes, zoomed in on the only photograph Merrick has of her reaffirm this. He can only see himself as an individual through the eyes of his mother, and the disappointment he imagines himself to be to her.
Yet the viewer is allowed to glimpse the inner workings of Merrick. On a momentous trip to the theatre Lynch showcases his trademark cinematic style with a series of trippy visuals combining Merrick’s dreams and nightmares overlaying the gaudy musical performance. The senses are overwhelmed as we escape into Merrick’s inner world. At the end of the performance Merrick receives his first, and only, moment of positive public attention when his friend, the actress Mrs Kendal (Anne Bancroft) dedicates the show to him. The camera pans across the audience in the stalls and balcony from a high angle, illuminating their arms clapping in unison. It is a triumphant moment for Merrick, and, elevated above the crowds he achieves an acceptance and commendation in his life of unending suffering.
However, it is following this moment that Merrick chooses to take his own life. The simple act of lying flat is enough to kill him, his head being so heavy that it broke his neck. Lynch presents his suicide as a doomed attempt to be ‘normal’, cutting lingeringly between Merrick and a framed image on his wall of a man sleeping in a bed. Moreover, in juxtaposing these two scenes, Lynch portrays Merrick’s attempt to escape from the objectifying power of the gaze. After enjoying a moment of positive attention he seeks to continue this, something he knows to impossible, and thus chooses to die.
Winner of the BATFA award for Best Film and Best Actor (John Hurt) (1981)