David Lynch’s Deeply Empathetic ‘The Elephant Man’ Arrives in the Criterion Collection

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The Elephant Man Criterion

When it comes to the work of David Lynch the most common aspect that people cling to are his surrealistic tendencies, these moments where Lynch strays from standard narrative structure that we’re hardwired to recognize. This leads to the predominant misconception about the films of David Lynch – that they’re meticulously crafted enigmas that need to be deciphered and decoded. Approaching Lynch this way is how many get wrapped up in the filmmaker’s work without actually engaging with it, seeking for metaphorical meaning in places where Lynch is being textual. It also causes viewers to miss that David Lynch is an incredibly empathetic filmmaker. After his mind-bending debut feature Eraserhead, Lynch gave audiences their first look at the director’s empathetic side with The Elephant Man, which finally lands on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.

Lynch teamed with producer Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) to bring the story of Joseph Merrick (often mistakenly named John Merrick as he is in the film) to the big screen. In an Oscar-nominated performance under layers of prosthetics, John Hurt plays the afflicted Merrick as he finds himself trapped in the inhuman display of freak shows before moving to the London College under the supervision of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). Over the course of his brief but difficult life, Merrick is subjected to the broadest possible spectrum of human behavior – receiving kindness and empathy from some and brutality and cruelty from others.

While he was gawked at and ridiculed in his day for his physical deformities, Lynch wouldn’t use The Elephant Man to reinforce the notion of Merrick as an outsider. The director isn’t concerned with Merrick’s physical condition. Instead The Elephant Man focuses on the true monstrosity – a society that will deny a man his humanity because of his appearance. Merrick is the subject of cruelty from the evil ringmaster Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), who keeps all the profits from his freak show to himself while only being generous with his violent impulses. When Merrick encounters kindness – even if at a distance at first – from Dr. Treves, the physically impaired outcast is subjected to demeaning suspicion from London Hospital’s governor Francis Carr Gomm (John Gielgud). Worst of all, though, is the horrible abuse Merrick is forced to endure by the night porter Jim (Michael Elphick), who defiles Merrick’s sanctuary by bringing in drunks and whores to gawk at the poor man.

The film’s thesis is said explicitly by Dr. Treves in the scene where the horrified doctor discovers Jim’s cruel actions in the middle of the night. “You’re the monster! You’re the freak!” Treves screams at the opportunistic porter. To profit off another man’s pain is a monstrosity. To use their physical difference as a means to demean and ridicule is the real freak show.

Lynch does sneak in a few of his trademark surrealistic flourishes into The Elephant Man, but for the most part the director makes a rather straightforward film. And Lynch assembled an incredible team to make The Elephant Man an incredibly atmospheric experience. The score by John Morris captures the essence of circus music with a haunting quality, like these notes are swirling in the ether echoing from a big tent that collapsed a century ago. Cinematographer Freddie Francis captures the grime of the London streets, and this new Blu-ray restoration gives Francis’ work an astonishing level of detail to the incredible production design led by Stuart Craig. And famed editor Anne B. Coates pieces together all of these elements to craft into a whole that garnered eight Oscar nominations.

The Criterion Collection edition of The Elephant Man, naturally, features plenty of special features. There are two features about the real life Joseph Merrick. A lengthy audio excerpt of Lynch and Kristine McKenna about the making of The Elephant Man from the book Room to Dream, which the two released in 2018. There are also archival trailers and TV spots alongside archival interviews with Lynch, Hurt, Brooks, and more. In the booklet included with the disc is a segment of from the book Lynch on Lynch as well as a letter from 1886 by Francis Carr Gomm about Merrick. One thing you won’t find on this disc of The Elephant Man are chapter breaks, as Lynch is known to do on his Blu-ray and DVD editions.

No matter what David Lynch does, no matter what’s actually in his films, there will always be people who want “solve” his films. But more often than not, there’s nothing to solve. There is, however, something to experience. With The Elephant Man, Lynch asserts his unique brand of empathetic storytelling – one that always balances the light with the dark, the good with the evil. If not for 1999’s The Straight Story, The Elephant Man would claim the mantle of David Lynch’s most empathetic film. The horrors and hopes that humanity can inspire are captured so well in The Elephant Man and now the film earns its place alongside many other films by David Lynch in the Criterion Collection.

The Elephant Man
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

The deeply empathetic second feature by David Lynch, The Elephant Man isn’t concerned with the physical abnormality of its subject as much as horror of those who deny his humanity because of his condition. This magnificent work finally arrives on Blu-ray as another fantastic edition from the Criterion Collection.

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