If one was to turn on David Lynch's The Elephant Man midway through, without knowing what it was, one might be startled at the appearance of the main character. One might even be tempted to make fun of the character. But if one was to watch the film from the beginning, one's sympathy with John Merrick (John Hurt), 'The Elephant Man,' would be strong enough to deny that the former situation was ever a possibility. Lynch does not allow his audience to glimpse Merrick sans mask until his appearance has been built up substantially. When we the audience are at our zenith of anticipation, we see him-no dramatic music, no slow motion; a simple cut and he's there. There he is. And it's no big deal.
This is the beauty of Lynch's direction. We are led through our morbid curiosity at the same rate the characters in the film are. We develop alongside them. More specifically, we develop alongside Frederick Treeves, played with an astounding sublimity of emotion by Anthony Hopkins. Next to Treeves we pity Merrick, respect him, pity him again, and then ask ourselves with him, 'is he just a spectacle to me? Am I a bad person?'
Lynch certainly doesn't let us bypass this question easily. Are we bad people for being intrigued or are we good people for pitying? Certainly there is a mix of intrigue and pity with every character who first meets John, and we are not excluded. However, as with almost every character who truly comes to know John and confer with him, we learn to respect him as a human being and not as a spectacle. Nonetheless, this issue never finds close in the film, nor do I feel it ever can be closed in actual life. Hopkin's Treeves is never fully sated in how he feels about this dilemma, and so, neither can we be.
Technically, The Elephant Man is a beautifully shot film. In crisp black and white, the film recalls the cinematic technique of American cinema circa the 1930's. The scenes dissolve into one another; there is no brisk editing. The lighting is kept low-key during dark scenes, balanced during daytime scenes-this is standard film-making of the era. The one digression from this form are the distinctly Lynchian surrealities-pseudo-dream-sequences of commendably original imagery that break up the film and serve as distinct mood-setters for the audience. These are, for the most part, fairly intimidating sidenotes. We as an audience are caught off-guard because in these tangents we are not identifying with Treeves, we are put instead into Merrick's shoes. It is unsettling.
But Lynch has never been a director to flinch at unsettling prospects. We must watch Merrick beaten, abused, harassed, humiliated, and tormented. We may feel a surge of happiness when he finally stands up for himself, but by that point we still have to cope with what we've already, what he's already, experienced. I suppose that is the greatest and most devastating aspect of the film-empathy. Every moment is heartbreaking. Yet no matter how hard it gets, and how much better it then turns, there is always the threat of another jab. And those jabs only get more and more painful.
The Elephant Man is a perfect film. It is sorrowful but it apologizes not at all for it. It is a film about where our empathy stems from, a film that asks you to feel sorry but rebukes you for your blind pity. It asks you to respect Merrick, not cry for him. But you can't help crying. The Elephant Man is a film that treks you through despair and asks for your hope in the end. It asks you to hate humanity but to love the humane. It asks you to look at a man who appears sad and know that inside, he's okay.