Directed by David Lynch
In The Elephant Man Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a surgeon who rehabilitates a deformed young man named John Merrick (John Hurt). Treves is fascinated with Merrick in the way any scientist of the human body would be. In contrast to the man who runs Merrick’s life as part of a freak show, Treves is a saint. He’s the only person who shows Merrick any kindness, and he slowly peels back the layers until we can finally see Merrick as a person.
Still, through turning around Merrick’s life, Treves undergoes a journey of his own. He has pulled Merrick out of the freak show, but soon visitors of London’s high society come all over just to become aquainted with the man. Treves wonders if he has really done anything of value and whether Merrick is still nothing more than an attraction.
It’s a concern not shared by the audience because we can see just how much Merrick’s life has improven. Beyond the fact that he is shown even the smallest amount of kindness, Merrick has begun to blossom. He no longer cowers behind small grunts but takes an active part in conversation about the theatre. He constructs a small replica of a nearby cathedral, and he proves himself to be quite in touch with his emotions. Merrick becomes a human being, for the first time in his life, and it’s heartwarming to see.
But what of Treves? He’s the more fascinating character in all of this, a surgeon who puts the story in motion but who doesn’t seem to share in the glory experienced by Merrick. Even as the deformed man’s life begins to change, again despite no physical cures to his disease, Treves just stands off to the side, watching it all unfold with a strange amount of objectivity.
Treves is saintly but perhaps self-loathing. Merrick’s eagerness to embrace the world contrasts with Treves’ own reservations about it. He witnesses what Merrick goes through, and maybe it’s this awareness of another’s pain that holds him back. Merrick is the one who experiences that pain but who manages to push through it and see what the world has to offer.
They are opposites, I suppose. One has a good deal going in his favor, but he is weighed down by seeing how someone less fortunate must endure. Merrick has very little going for him, and when shown some decency he chooses life.
Is it as simple as optimism versus pessimism? Merrick’s plight is unenviable, and it reminds me of some study on happiness I’ve heard repeated a few times, about how at our core we are the same level of content, regardless of circumstance. A petty prick might win the lottery and become a little less petty while a carefree person might become paralyzed from the neck down. Six months later the prick will still be the prick, and the carefree person will still be carefree.
So Merrick has always had this joy within him while Treves, much more reserved, doesn’t seem capable of experiencing such boundless energy. That isn’t to say he can’t feel emotion, of course, because we do see that shot of Merrick shedding a single tear when he first sees Merrick in person.
This entire film is really just one of those youtube videos in which someone rehabilitates a dog left to starve in the street. At first they are gaunt, standoffish, etc. Then the person gets them a bath, starts feeding them, and one short montage later and the dog is plump, happy and healthy. That’s the exact feeling I got watching this, and they both evoke the same reaction.
There is more going on in The Elephant Man, mostly in regards to a person’s capacity to mock that which they don’t understand and in turn fear. The antagonist is a man who brings people to Merrick’s window to show him off, taking delight in the guests’ squeals. Those who can only offer Merrick a single glance see him as less than human while the people who get to know him quickly love the person inside.
So don’t judge a book by its cover. The Elephant Man is sweet, much more sentimental than other David Lynch movies and heartbreaking.
Up Next: Rich Hill (2014), Life (2017), Affliction (1997)