The Elephant Man
Some of David Lynch’s enigmatic hallmarks appear in this underappreciated chiaroscuro fever dream: an apocryphal opening pulled straight from Freud’s idea of the uncanny, an otherwise baffling moment of shrill female hysteria, and an overall insinuation that man is the most evil monster alive. But this 1980 effort, Lynch’s most accessible, is redolent with the most touching moments in his entire oeuvre. Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is the Victorian London doctor who takes in a severely deformed sideshow attraction, John Merrick (John Hurt), and discovers an intelligent soul entombed inside his disfiguring condition. The cruel extent of Merrick’s brief life is barely captured here; Lynch instead abstracts narrative into visuals as bracing as anything from the silent era—angry mobs chasing Merrick through foggy London, revealing Merrick’s body first in devastating silhouette, registering heartbreaking terror in shots of Hopkins’ adroitly expressive face. And while The Elephant Man at times teeters on the brink of sentimentality, it also swells to indelible cinematic moments, such as when Merrick attends a play and the production literally comes alive around him.