‘People are frightened by what they don’t understand’. The Elephant Man.

elephant_manI wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I really dislike the films of David Lynch. I find them creepy, distasteful and exasperating. It aggravates me too that he dangles the carrot of artistic interpretation and discussion while not letting anyone, critics or cinema-goers, come up with their own meanings to his work. After all, is that not the point of art? Create something with your own meaning and be willing to discuss it with others who will derive their own conclusion? I don’t know, to me that sounds like fun. But to David Lynch, it just sounds like too much like hard work. So we have to suck it up and nod while being shown graphic and exploitative material that can’t even be debated afterwards (I’m looking at you Blue Velvet/Mulholland Drive etc.).

That’s not to say he isn’t a striking director – his use of colour is fantastic and boy does he know how to create thought-provoking soundscapes that fit his usual equal-parts dreamlike to sinister narratives. He clearly puts a lot of thought into his work and has exceptional attention to detail. We all know Eraserhead took a ridiculous amount of time to complete because he wanted to get it just right. He has also developed well, there is clearly creative growth and improvement in his filmography, he has a developed style and has refined it over his career. So, looking back at his older films (The Elephant Man being his first big-budget studio venture), it’s fascinating to see these seeds of development. And I was surprised by the narrative content as well, for the first time I came to see a different side to the man I thought I knew, more on that later.

It was with relief that I came into the cool dark womb of the Prince Charles Cinema yesterday. Out of the shocking rays of the sun, out of the noise of Leicester square, ready to sit down and pass a few hours relaxing and feeding my soul with culture. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t thrilled that said culture trip would be involving Lynch – if you haven’t already guessed I am not his number one fan. But it was big brother choosing the films this time and I guess I would come to thank him in the end.

The first thing I noticed is how well this film has aged – the black and white heightens the drama and, if we want to get meta (which I know you don’t like David, sorry), highlights from the outset that this is a film with many hues of grey – there is no moral absolute behind this story, ironically things are not black and white. We start out with a very Lynch-esque sequence of fog and sparks and screaming women (which led to a very undeserved eye roll I’m afraid) but once the film got to it things improved, and quickly. Greeted by a very young and attractive Anthony Hopkins (Treves) we are drawn straight into the carnage of the circus – we see the looks of shock and horror of the crowds, the policemen trying to hurry people along and we meet the first villain of the piece – Bytes. John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely disfigured and abused individual is paraded by Bytes with little to no concern for his welfare, as long as he receives the funding for his alcohol habit, Bytes is content with their so-called ‘partnership’.

Treves becomes interested in Merrick as a medical curiosity and eventually convinces Bytes to allow Merrick to be shown to a group of his colleagues at the hospital. Initially considering him to be an idiot, after several chance encounters and conversations with Merrick, Treves is satisfied that he is a competent individual – intelligent, versed in the Bible and interested in the world around him. With this in mind, Treves sets Merrick up at the hospital where, by day, he becomes the toast of London’s high society. Yet our second villain, a night porter, keeps up the cycle of abuse taking up the baton from Bates and parading Merrick in his room by night. And so it goes on, Merrick and Treves form a close partnership and Merrick is allowed to develop as the person he was never given the chance to be. It’s not without difficulty and a few twists and turns (any more explanation and I’d have to issue a spoiler alert), but we are given enough of the story for us to come away feeling like we’ve learned something – or at least have a lot to think about.

First off, I am surprised that this film is not touted to medical students (of which I am one – hence the massively inconsistent writing times) as a discussion of empathy and morality. This is really important. There are obvious examples of the terrible abuse that Merrick received from Bytes and the circus but there are also questions to be asked of Treves’ morality and attitude towards Merrick. For example, at the beginning of the film – where he shows Merrick, undressed, to his colleagues seemingly for no other reason than intrigue – is Treves any better than Bytes? Or later on – inviting members of high society to join Merrick for tea, is this just another facet of the constant parade Merrick has to go through. Even worse, could Treves be manipulating Merrick inadvertently, making him rely on him and his team, making him appreciate them while quickly going up the ranks of his profession and gaining fame and fortune in the press. Of course, I am speaking from a harsh position – throughout the film we are shown many instances of Treves questioning this morality himself and whether he is doing right by John – Treves is a sensitive character after all. But it has to be questioned. Case in point – while Merrick constantly refers to Treves as ‘friend’, there is no reciprocation of this gesture by Treves who seems to be left bewildered by how he should treat Merrick.

There is a fantastic scene which really brings these ideas home where the head nurse, Mothershead, comes to Treves concerned that Merrick is being inadvertently exploited. Now, in the beginning, Mothershead behaves professionally with John but is less than beguiling, acting harshly around him. She considers him to be an idiot invalid who will not get better and therefore a waste of her time, but also understands that it is her duty as a nurse to treat who is brought to her. She is brought up on this by Treves:

Mothershead: Sir! I don’t quite… I don’t quite understand why it is you allow that sort of people in there.
Treves: Why? Because he enjoys it, and I think it’s very good for him.
Mothershead: Yes, but, sir, you saw the expression on their faces. They didn’t hide their disgust. They don’t care anything about John! They only want to impress their friends!
Treves: I think you’re being rather harsh on them, don’t you, Mrs. Mothershead?
Mothershead: I beg your pardon!
Treves: You yourself hardly showed him much loving kindness when he first arrived, did you?
Mothershead: I bathed him, I fed him, and I cleaned up after him, didn’t I? And I see that my nurses do the same. And if loving kindness can be called care and practical concern, then I did show him loving kindness, and I am not ashamed to admit it!

What an interesting concept! This has so much room for debate and seems so relevant, why had this never come up when I was applying to Med School? Sorry for the diversion but these few lines are so loaded so I want to explore them for a minute, feel free to skip it out. I’m really not sure how I feel about this as a medical student. I know that we should treat all patients with kindness, compassion, respect dignity… The list goes on. But at the very top of the list comes empathy – understanding how that person, and note that it is person, not patient, here truly feels. Considering how their condition must feel in their body, how the world must look through their eyes. As far as I can tell, it appears that Mothershead acts the true professional – but therein lies the problem. She is driven by a professional duty to show this ‘loving kindness’, (insert [empathy] here), and that professional drive may even surpass her personal abilities and feelings. If she weren’t his nurse, would Mothershead treat Merrick like a freak? Would she even try to understand his needs as a full person? How can we know – and herein lies the crux of the matter. As medical professionals are we essentially trying to ‘tick the empathy box’. Our training does cover empathetic behaviour, which seems like the ultimate irony considering it should just be a base human trait among medics. Who knows what the right answer is here – there are arguments that this training provides consistency and gets patients the best treatment. But there is also something more than sinister about learned empathy, it takes away the genuineness of the consultation room, the real rapport we should be establishing with patients – not just pretending to establish by following guidelines. Why should we act with empathy when we should be able to be empathetic. I’m really not sure where I stand with it, I could write about it all day (and probably make absolutely no sense) but I wanted to share my concerns.

Anyhow, back to the review. It goes without saying that John Hurt gives a standout performance as Merrick – I cannot disagree with the numerous nominations and awards the film has received and give Hurt posthumous kudos for dealing with the prosthetics and the make-up. The scenes of exploitation are the right level of shocking – they lack the usual indulgence that Lynch uses in his other films (another thumbs up from me). The relationship between Merrick and Treves feels real and the dilemmas brought up are covered sensitively and maturely. So, what can I say? Go see this film while it’s on the big screen, appreciate it, think – and wonder why the hell David Lynch hasn’t made any more like it.

****

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