The Elephant Man (1980)
Long known as one of David Lynch’s few “normal” films, The Elephant Man remains remarkable for all the ways it defies that characterization.
Distinct, visceral and wounded, the film finds London surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) plumbing a street circus for intriguing pathology subjects. There, he discovers John Merrick (John Hurt), whose tumorous disfigurement will soon make him a medical curiosity and tabloid celebrity.
Throughout, Lynch’s storytelling subverts the “super doctor heals special patient” melodrama. The initial spectacle is Hopkins’ slack-jawed reaction shots, not Merrick’s condition. Soon, the audience is accustomed to seeing the ever-earnest Merrick in the middle of the frame (in makeup that led to the creation of the Best Makeup Oscar category in 1981), and his mind becomes the film’s central question. Hurt’s burbling yet mannered performance is masterful, while Hopkins’ propensity for high-English coldness suggests a constant gulf between the would-be friends.
Meanwhile, cinematographer Freddie Francis shoots one of the few black-and-white films of the color era that could credibly be from 50 years earlier. And Lynch is in full command of his sensorial wizardry, synchronizing Merrick’s labored breathing in sound collages with Victorian London’s churning industry.
Sure, The Elephant Man is “normal” in the sense of being a historical drama with occasional redemptive notes, but those notes are tinged by the mystery of not only man’s inhumanity to man, but also why a universe would ever create such theatrical modes of pain. Academy, May 26-June 2.
5th Avenue: After Life (1998), Dreams (1990), May 26-28. Academy: The Wild Bunch (1969), May 26-June 1. Cinema 21: Duel (1971), May 27. Clinton: Cats (2019), May 25. Wicked Stepmother (1989), May 27. Hollywood: Boogie Nights (1997), May 26-28 and 30. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), May 27 and 29. Lifeforce (1985), May 27-28.