‘The Elephant Man’ is David Lynch’s best film

“When I first heard the title an explosion went off in my brain, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ It was a true blessing to get that movie.” — David Lynch on “The Elephant Man” in a 2007 interview with yours truly

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David Lynch

In “The Elephant Man,” David Lynch’s disturbing-heartbreaking biopic from 1980, John Hurt plays the title character, born Joseph Merrick, a young man so monstrously deformed that people scream at the sight of him, forcing him to wear a burlap sack over his mountainous head and a shroud around his body, covering every inch of his warped, tumor-encrusted flesh, save for a normal, miraculously unblemished left hand.

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Embalmed in layers of latex and makeup, Hurt is entirely unrecognizable as Merrick. He’s like a knobby, gnarled, twisted tree trunk with sad, tiny eyes and a high, saliva-slurred voice. It’s an amazingly sensitive performance, that of an actor vanishing into and fully embodying a character. (Hurt, who died in January, was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role. He lost to Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull.”)

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(The real Joseph Merrick, left; John Hurt as Merrick in the film.) 

Co-starring a pointillistic Anthony Hopkins in perhaps his finest role, “The Elephant Man” is a showcase of virtuosity, from Lynch’s eccentric vision to Freddie Francis’ sumptuous black and white photography and John Morris’ chilling carnivalesque score. A study of two men — Hurt’s freak show celebrity and Hopkins’ conflicted physician caretaker — the 19th-century-set drama is also a tender inquiry into human dignity and compassion. In look, texture and emotional rewards, it’s a model of cinematic specialness, ravishingly artistic and uncontainably sad. It is, in short, Lynch’s masterpiece.

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Anthony Hopkins in maybe his best performance

It was none other than funnyman Mel Brooks who tapped Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man” as part of Brooks’ foray into producing serious films. He was struck by Lynch’s 1977 feature debut “Eraserhead,” a hallucinatory head-trip that’s become the epitome of the cult midnight movie. “Eraserhead” is the surrealist progeny of Dali and Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or” (1930), shuddering with unsettling images, notably a reptilian squawking monster-baby and a small dancing girl inside a radiator, whose cauliflower growths on her face mirror the tumored deformities of Merrick. In our 2007 interview, Lynch called “Eraserhead” “My most spiritual film.”

If “The Elephant Man” is his most emotional film, it also doesn’t shirk the avant-garde flourishes beloved by Lynch, the master of modern surreal cinema. With their unnerving atmospherics, several scenes could be lifted from “Eraserhead”: the opening attack of Merrick’s mother by rumbling, trumpeting elephants; Merrick’s vertiginous nightmare; the elegiac denouement. The scenes are decidedly phantasmagorical, filled with dancing clouds of smoke; clanking and throbbing with ambient industrial noise; and damp with symbolic water and steam. Executives at Paramount wanted the sequences removed from the film, but Lynch prevailed.

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Lynch, cameraman Francis and production designer Stuart Craig evoke an eerie Victorian London in haunting black and white, the shades of dreams and nightmares. From the city’s backstreet slums to the boisterous freak shows, it’s a sooty, Dickensian world, paved in rain-soaked cobblestone and punctuated by hissing blasts of steam billowing from primitive machines. It sets a mood that puts you on edge for the entire picture, and it is somehow beautiful.

For all that, “The Elephant Man” remains the director’s most accessible movie — after, of course, the almost comically anomalous “The Straight Story,” a delightful G-rated family film released by Walt Disney in 1999.

Six years after “The Elephant Man” Lynch wrote and directed the gleefully perverse “Blue Velvet,” which landed him his second Best Director Oscar nod. (He’d earn a third for “Mulholland Drive.”) As violent and otherworldly as it is, “Blue Velvet” feels largely grounded and relatably human.

His next pictures — including the anarchic blaze of “Wild at Heart,” the tedious and drastically overestimated “Mulholland Drive,” the experimental mishmash of “Inland Empire” and television’s wearying “Twin Peaks” — not so much.

(Mercifully, I’ll skip Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of “Dune,” his follow-up to “The Elephant Man.” When I asked him about it in our interview, he simply replied, “Heartache.”)

I have a hard time taking Lynch’s later work seriously. I’ve always thought the “strangeness” in these films was indulgent and sophomoric and not very well thought out. He suggested as much during our interview. He told me he made up the story for the three-hour ordeal that is “Inland Empire” as he was shooting it. Yup, that’s exactly what it feels like.

And that’s why the almost button-down linearity of “The Elephant Man” is rather a relief. It’s also why, possibly, die-hard Lynch fans, practically cultists, don’t talk a lot about his first studio film, going directly to “Blue Velvet” as a starting point. Despite its weird ornaments, “The Elephant Man” might be too mainstream, too Oscar-nominated for purists. The film earned eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

What’s different about “The Elephant Man” from the other movies is that it doesn’t traffic in abstractions and actually contains feeling, heart and soul. Though it’s never exploitative — it’s hardly emotional porn — it can be a wee manipulative. (There are least four crying scenes.) It’s Lynch’s most human, most humane, work of art.

It is his only film of unfettered beauty.

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