Web Only | The Monster is Afraid: The Elephant Man, David Lynch

By Serge Daney

It is the monster who is afraid

This movie is strange in many ways. And firstly because of what David Lynch does with fear: the spectator’s fear (ours) and the characters’, including John Merrick’s (the elephant man). Thus, the first part of the film, until the arrival at the hospital, works a bit like a trap. The spectator gets used to the idea that sooner or later he will have to bear the unbearable and face the monster. A coarse cloth bag with one eye-hole is all that separates him from the horror that he guesses. The spectator has entered the film like Treves, from the angle of voyeurism. He has paid (just as Treves has) to see a freak (1): this elephant man successively exhibited and forbidden, saved and beaten up, briefly seen in a cave, “showcased” to scientists, taken in and hidden at the Royal Hospital of London. And when the spectator sees him at last, he is all the more disappointed that Lynch then pretends to play the game of the classic horror movie: night, deserted hospital corridors, clouds moving rapidly in a heavy sky, and suddenly this shot of John Merrick raised on his bed, racked by a nightmare. The spectator sees him—really—for the first time, but what he also sees is that the monster who is supposed to scare him is himself afraid. It is at this moment that Lynch frees his spectator from the trap he had first set (the “more-to-see” trap), as if Lynch was saying: you are not the one that matters, it’s him, the elephant man; it is not your fear that interests me but his; it is not your fear to be afraid that I want to manipulate but his fear to scare, his fear to see himself in the look of the other. The vertigo changes sides.

The psalm is a mirror

The Elephant Man is a series of coups de théâtre, some funny (the princess’ visit at the hospital as a “dea ex machina”), others more troubling. We never know how a scene may end. When Treves wants to convince Carr Gomm, the hospital director (magnificently played by John Gielgud), that John Merrick is not an incurable, he asks the latter to learn by rote and to recite the beginning of a psalm: but as soon as the two doctors have left the room, they hear Merrick recite the end of the psalm. Shock, coup de théâtre: this man whom Treves himself considers a cretin knows the Bible by rote. Later, when Treves introduces him to his wife, Merrick does not cease to surprise them by showing a portrait of his own mother (she is very beautiful) and by being the first one to give a handkerchief to Treves’ wife, who has suddenly burst into tears. There is quite a bit of humour in this way of positioning the elephant man as the one who always completes the picture in which he belongs, the one who signs the painting. It is also a very literal and not at all psychological way to move the story forward: with jumps and a signifying logic. Thus John Merrick finds his place in the picture of English (high) society, Victorian and puritan, for which he becomes a must-see tourist attraction. He is something that this society needs, without which it cannot be complete. But what exactly? The end of the psalm, the portrait, the handkerchief, what are they in the end? The more the film progresses, the clearer it is for those around him: the elephant man is a mirror. They see him less and less, but they see themselves more and more in his gaze.

The three gazes

In the course of the movie, John Merrick is the object of three gazes. Three gazes for three ages of cinema: burlesque, modern, classic. Or: the fun fair, the hospital, the theatre. There is first the gaze down below, the gaze of the low people, and Lynch’s harsh, precise gaze, without affability, on this gaze. There are bits of a carnival in the scene where Merrick is made drunk and kidnapped. In the carnival, there is no human essence to impersonate (even with the face of a monster), there are only bodies to laugh it off. Then there is the modern gaze, the doctor’s fascinated gaze (a remarkable Anthony Hopkins): respect of the other and bad conscience, morbid eroticism and epistemophilia. By looking after the elephant man, Treves saves himself: it is the humanist’s fight (à la Kurosawa). Finally, there is a third gaze. The more the elephant man is popular and celebrated, the more the ones visiting him have the time to put on a mask, a mask of politeness that conceals what they feel at his sight. They go see John Merrick to test this mask: if their fear betrayed them, they would see its reflection in Merrick’s eyes. It is in this way that the elephant-man is their mirror, not a mirror where they could see and recognize themselves but a mirror to learn how to play, how to conceal, how to lie even more. At the beginning of the movie, there was the abject promiscuity between the freak and the man showcasing him (Bytes), then Treves’ muted, ecstatic horror in the cave. At the end, it is Mrs. Kendal, the London theatre star, who decides, when reading a newspaper, to become the elephant man’s friend. In a rather uneasy scene, Anne Bancroft, as the guest star, wins her bet: not one muscle of her face twitches when she is introduced to Merrick, to whom she talks as to an old friend, going as far as kissing him. The loop has closed, Merrick can die and the movie can end. On one hand, the social mask has been entirely reconstituted; on the other hand, Merrick has at last seen in another’s gaze something totally different than the reflection of the disgust he inspires. What? He couldn’t say. He takes the height of artifice for the truth and of course he’s not wrong—since we are at the theatre.

For the elephant man cultivates two dreams: to sleep on his back and to go to the theatre. He will realize them both the same evening, just before dying. The end of the film is very moving. At the theatre, when Merrick stands up in his box to allow those who applaud him to see him, we really no longer know what is in their gaze, we don’t know what they see. Lynch has then managed to redeem one by the other, dialectically, monster and society. Albeit only at the theatre and only for one night. There won’t be another performance.

(1) In English in the text.

This text first appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, n° 322, Paris, 1981, and is reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 1 « Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981 », Editions P.O.L, Paris, 2001, pp. 266-269. It appears here with the permission of the publisher Editions P.O.L (www.pol-editeur.fr). Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

sdaney@cinema-scope.com Daney Serge