Arlecchino Cinema > 17:00


David Lynch
Introduced by

Roy Menarini


Thursday 27/08/2020


Original version with subtitles


Film Notes

This movie is strange in many ways. First, 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. […] 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 he were 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. […] 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 respect for the other and a 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. […] 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.

Serge Daney, “Cahiers du cinéma”, n. 322, April 1981, tr. Eng. by Laurent Kretzschmar,

Cast and Credits

Sog.: dai libri The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) di Frederick Treves e The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971) di Ashley Montagu. Scen.: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch. F.: Freddie Francis. M.: Anne V. Coates. Scgf.: Stuart Craig, Robert Cartwright. Mus.: John Morris. Int.: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Madre Shead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (guardiano notturno), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alex), John Standing (Fox). Prod.: Jonathan Sanger per Brooksfilms. DCP. D.: 124’. Bn.