“I am not an elephant ! I am not an animal ! I am a human being ! I am a man!”
(John Merrick) – The Elephant Man –
With this line, David Lynch offers us a call for tolerance and humanity. Released on 9th October 1980, Elephant Man tackles , in a dramatic and poetic directing , the treatment reserved to people with deformities and severe congenital physical abnormalities. Elephant Man is showing us how their physical handicap reduces them as circus freaks and justifies their exploitation by circus owners or other imposters. The movie is adapted from the memoirs of Dr Frederick Treves, The elephant man and other reminiscences, and from Ashley Montagu’s book, In part of the elephant man: a study in human dignity. Through a real story, Elephant Man demonstrates how the real monsters are not the ones we think of first.
The movie dives into 1884 London and introduces John Merrick (played by John Hurt), a man suffering from severe deformities, exploited by its owner Bytes (played by Freddie Jones) who makes him play on stage. John gets the name of Elephant Man following his mother’s accident, trampled on by elephants during her pregnancy. John Merrick’s life is turned upside down once Dr Federick Treves, a famous surgeon in London, becomes interested in him, and more especially his physical condition, for scientific research. Dr Treves borrows John Merrick from his owner to study him and accommodates him in an individual room inside the hospital, far away from other patients to avoid shocking them.
At first, Dr Treves imagines the man as someone unintelligent and incapable of expressing himself. Nevertheless, Merrick manages to establish communication with the doctor by reciting an entire section of the Bible. Frederick Treves thus discovers a sensitive soul, speaking in perfect English and showing the marks of huge intelligence.
“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.”
(John Merrick) – The Elephant Man –
Elephant Man is also revealing about the Victorian English way of life in which Merrick evolves. We discover the flaws of this society where different social classes and their vices are mixed together. Nonetheless, either violent imposters or petty aristocrats take advantage of Merrick’s appearance for lucrative, treacherous, and unhealthy ends. John Merrick exposes their scam by being polite and respectful towards his guests. With this contrast, every encounter between Merrick and this society becomes deeply moving. The vices of this English society oppose the unconditional faith of the “circus freak”.
“- Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?
– Yes, I think I can.
– I don’t think so. No one could possibly imagine it! I don’t believe any of us can!”
(Carr Gomm and Frederick Treves) – The Elephant Man-
With this melodramatic plot and as he induces questions of morality through the actors’ interplay of glances, Lynch’s genius is brought to light. We can assist to the self-questioning of Dr Treves thanks to its perception of Merrick, highlighted by close-ups in reverse angle. This game transforms as Dr Treves discovers John Merrick’s humanity. David Lynch chooses to make a black and white movie, an artistic choice that allows us to discover John Merrick’s body with any artifice, thus showcasing him by playing with shadows and lights.
With four Oscars nominations, four Golden Globes nominations and the Cesar reward for the best international movie, Elephant Man is without doubt a humanistic masterpiece of 20th-century cinema. This is a poignant movie that perfectly questions the cruelty, but also the beauty, of humanity.
Translated by Samantha Frary–Aubert and Romane Piechota.