I don’t think I have ever cried so hard over a movie.
I certainly wasn’t expecting this film to be a light-hearted jaunt, to be sure, but I wasn’t expecting the emotional devestation it delivered either. I have been habitually drawn to characters that are primarily defined by some sort of deformity, but they’re usually morally questionable if not downright evil. What makes The Elephant Man, and indeed the story of Joseph Merrick itself, so heartbreaking is that he was a good, kind person, resulting in Bambi-esque degrees of sadness.
It’s hard for me to tell if it was simply the story itself that so affected me, or if David Lynch’s direction was especially influential as well. Lynch’s approach to The Elephant Man is humane and indirect, as opposed to encouraging disgust from the audience. The use of black and white is practically a necessity, as well, as I doubt the film could have come off half as effectively in color (the use of contemporary black and white is a whole diatribe I will likely embark on at some point). There were moments that I felt the film veered off into strange sequences of abstraction and loudness, in a film that was otherwise quiet and gentle, but overall even these incongruous moments serve to provide some degree of emotional understanding. The film’s script is mercifully subtle, deftly avoiding melodrama and overt moralization; character speech and action is mostly left to speak for itself, which is devestating enough without bringing in any dramatic speeches about Human Kindness, etc.
This movie is also great at forcing viewer self-awareness when it comes to Merrick and his deformity. Lynch’s direction usually tries to make Merrick seem as approachable as possible, but his deformity isn’t downplayed either, creating a dizzying contrast of sympathy and discomfort. Merrick’s soul is heartbreakingly pure, but his face is frequently difficult to look at; we’d all like to think that, were we able to step into the movie, we’d be the kind soul to offer him a caring hand, but it is hard to be absolutely certain without having experienced such an encounter in reality. Nonetheless, the film managed to establish a disconcertingly thorough bond between me and Merrick through its two-hour run time, in part by unfolding Merrick’s character and progress so slowly that you beg for the next development in his history and despair over his every misfortune. By the end of the movie I felt a true sense of loss.
What I think may have been the most traumatizing part of the film though was simply that most of it was real. It’s devastating to think that someone would have lived the life that Merrick lived, but the events of the film are commendably true to what we know of Merrick’s real history. Worst of all is that despite being given humanity’s unkindest treatment, he seems to have been the least offensive person imaginable, rendering his story a complete tragedy without even trying.