David Lynch’s second full-length film contains the odd assortment of freakish characters we’ve become accustomed to in his films. Yet, despite having one of the more outlandish characters he has ever put on celluloid, it remains his most sentimental film. The Elephant Man is based upon the true story of John Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman with massive deformities throughout his body. He performed in freakshows for many years until he was found by Dr. Treves who cared for him and placed him in Whitechapel hospital. It is his time in this hospital that the film concerns itself with. For here, Merrick is able to live, more or less, as a gentleman. He is well-fed, well-kept, and educated. He can read, write, speak eloquently, and even begins to entertain the well-to-dos of society.
It is filmed beautifully in black and white. It is a very well-made piece of cinema. Lynch, for the most part, stays away from his trademark imagery and symbolism and sticks to more traditional storytelling, although the opening sequence is a straight Lynch nightmare. That the characters come from real life and not Lynch’s twisted imagination only serves to add to the surrealism of the film.
It has been said that Lynch is too sentimental in this movie. That he manipulates the audience too much. Ebert even goes as far as saying Lynch tricks the audience into believing that Merrick is a noble and courageous man. He suggests, that rather than being noble, Merrick is merely doing the best that he can, under poor circumstances. It is true that the film is sentimental. There is hardly a scene that does not prick the audience’s emotions.
How many of us would dare to get out of bed each day with similar difficulties? And here, this man, though physically plagued, manages to keep up his spirits and even write and build card sculptures. It would be a poor director at that who could not produce a tear at such a sight. If we pretend it is not a noble feat for such a creature to retain his humanity and good cheer, while being constantly bombarded with inhumane indecencies are we any better than those who stand outside the carnival and jeer?
Yet there is something in these critiques of sentimentalism. Lynch continues to use his tricks as a director to keep our eyes wet. There is a scene in which Merrick meets Dr. Treve’s wife and breaks down with tears at her simple kind acts. His tears state that no one has been so kind to him as to treat him like a gentleman. Though effective, this is using the craft of filmmaking to do nothing but manipulate emotions. In other films, I would lambaste this type of sentimentalism and chastise the audience for falling for it. Yet the overall sadness throughout the story makes me fall for it here. I cannot commend such use of it in the film anywhere, and yet it works for me in this particular instance.
Overall, The Elephant Man is a fine achievement for a young director. Lynch would go on to make more articulate, less sentimental films. But here we find him assured in his imagery and storytelling. He effectively sweeps the viewer into the emotional turmoil of such a sad, hopeless story.