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IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with big_daz and gillywoo.

Shot in black and white, and given its macabre subject-matter and Victorian setting, this felt more like a Hammer film from their still-actually-quite-serious era than it did an early 80s David Lynch number. Which I guess was Lynch's intention.

It was moving and powerful, and did lots of very interesting things with the issue of gazes and exploitation. The uncomfortable similarity between Bytes, the freakshow proprietor who exhibits John Merrick to the public for money, and Dr. Frederick Treves, who 'rescues' him but then exhibits him to fellow doctors, is explicitly addressed, while there's also a lot of stuff going on about who is audience and who performers in the theatre, whether windows are for looking out of or looking into, and the general relationship between seeing and being seen. All of which, of course, then neatly poses the same questions to the audience, watching through a fourth wall. Thought-provoking symbolism = yay!

For a David Lynch film, it was a pretty straightforward narrative, but there were some rather bizarre sequences about machines and pollution, which I was somewhat nonplussed by. I didn't think anyone had ever thought John (or properly Joseph) Merrick's condition was caused by either, so I wasn't sure what the point was, really. However, a bit of Googling today reveals that one form of elephantiasis is thought to be caused by 'persistent contact with volcanic ash', so I guess maybe that was Lynch's point after all. In fact, DNA tests on his remains published in 2003 suggest that the problem was a combination of two rare genetic disorders - type 1 neurofibromatosis (NF1) and Proteus syndrome - but Lynch could not have known that in 1980.

big_daz also had a book chronicling the true story of Joseph Merrick, which I had a good browse through after we'd seen the film. It showed that quite a lot of things had been changed for the sake of the story - for example, massively exaggerating the extent to which Merrick was ill-treated by Bytes, and completely inventing an episode in which the latter steals Merrick back from the hospital where Treves is looking after him. It also clarified what Merrick's childhood had been like, and how he came to have been so well-educated - something completely unexplained by the film. In fact, his whole life up to his time as a 'novelty exhibition' in Leicester is very eloquently chronicled in his own words, while good old Wikipedia supplies the rest.

None of which undermines the quality of the film, of course. But the real story is just as interesting in its own right.

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