MARCH ROUNDUP (1) : ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) [10/10]; ‘Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl’ [6/10]

The Elephant Man

   Thirty years on – and with INLAND EMPIRE (2006) his most recent feature – it seems safe to presume that The Elephant Man will remain the crowning masterpiece of David Lynch’s career. Directed and co-written by Lynch when he was in his early thirties, it’s a rare – perhaps unique – example of an intelligent, avant-garde, riskily experimental film-making sensibility placed at the service of a remarkably strong real-life story with enormous appeal to all audiences.
   Credit must go to producers Stuart Cornfeld, Jonathan Sanger and Mel Brooks for selecting Lynch for the project off the back of the impenetrably nightmarish Eraserhead (1976), then for teaming him up with expert veterans such as cinematographer Freddie Francis (who’d been working in movies since the mid-1930s, and who finds infinite gradations of inky monochrome), editor Anne V Coates (mid-40s) and art director Bob Cartwright (early 50s), plus younger personnel including composer John Morris, casting-director Maggie Cartier, production designer Stuart Craig.
   This is a terrific example of outstanding individual achievements coming together, and the whole being somehow much greater even than the superb individual parts – special mention should go to Alan Splet, the sound-designer who had worked with Lynch for a decade, and whose susurrations and rumblings so brilliantly evoke the atmosphere of Victorian London. Indeed, The Elephant Man at its best is about as close as the movies have ever got to time-travel, so utterly are we immersed in the buildings, spaces and sensations of a previous period.
   This is, of course, just the backdrop for an utterly heartbreaking story of exploitation and fragile human dignity, one which very carefully operates right on the dangerous edge of excessive sentimentality and manipulation. It’s built around actual events in the brief life of John Merrick (John Hurt) – hideously deformed from birth, and rescued from a tormented existence as a carnival freak by kindly surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins.) Top-billed Hopkins and second-billed Hurt make for one of the screen’s most unlikely, most touching “double-acts,” and the narrative arc chiefly concerns the development of their friendship over the course of several months.
   But there are various sub-plots and peregrinations, bringing in all manner of character-actors from John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller to Michael Elphick and Hannah Gordon – indeed, with minor roles played by the likes of Dexter Fletcher and Pauline Quirke, The Elephant Man‘s “all star” cast may occasionally prove a little distracting for British audiences. It seems unfair to isolate any individuals in such a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime cast, but Hopkins has surely never been better (his Treves is both utterly precise in his speech and actions, and yet constantly in physical and intellectual haste), and Freddie Jones – as Merrick’s “owner” and tormentor, carnival-showman Bytes – steals the show with quivering rage and demonic aplomb.
   It’s Lynch who’s the undoubted star of The Elephant Man‘s show, of course, exploring Merrick’s outer and inner life with ingenuities, epiphanies and sublimities which no other director would be able to imagine, never mind successfully commit to celluloid. There are stunning, magical things in abundance here – and Lynch saves the best till last. Two sequences, in the final few minutes, are among the most astonishing in the whole of cinema: an impressionistic rendering Merrick’s debut visit to the theatre to see a pantomime of Puss-in-Boots (transportingly beautiful, inexplicably touching), and a closing montage of stars, clouds, a woman’s face, Barber’s Adagio, and some lines of Tennyson that combine into what’s surely the greatest of all film endings.

   As the present century wears on, the phenomenon of prominent, busy centenarians will surely become less and less unusual. But for now the longevity and apparently unflagging energy of Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, born December 1908 and still making movies, renders him pretty much unique in the history of cinema. In other creative fields, the closest relatively recent parallels include cartoonist and painter Boris Yefimov, who remained active until his death at 108 in 2008; painter Alphaeus Philemon Cole, who exhibited up to the age of 103 (he died nine years later, in 1988); and poet Sasha Krasny, who published new poetry collections at 108 and 111, passing away in 1995 at 113.
   Such precedents suggest we may well have several more features from de Oliveira, especially given the fact that his recent work – including 2006’s lukewarm  Belle de Jour sequel, Belle Toujours, and his latest Eccentricites of a Blonde Haired Girl – tends to run just over an hour in length. To be fair, there’s not much in Eccentricities to justify any more in the way of running-time – indeed, the material could easily have been compressed into a short of thirty minutes or so.
   De Oliveira’s script is adapted from a short story by José Maria Eça de Queirós (1845-1900), regarded in many quarters as Portugal’s greatest novelist. He’s best known nowadays for his wildly controversial 1875 best-seller The Crime of Father Amaro – adapted into financially successful films from Mexico (2002, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar) and Portugal (2005). The story upon which Eccentricities is based originally appeared in 1880 in the collection The Mandarin, most likely written during his time in the UK – working for the Portuguese consular service, he was stationed in Newcastle from 1874 to 1879, before moving on to Bristol.
   The film version concerns the amour fou which consumes Macário (played by De Oliveira’s   grandson Ricardo Trêpa), a Lisbon office-clerk quickly besotted with comely neighbour Luí­sa (Catarina Wallenstein.) Macário’s dreams of marriage are stymied by his uncle Francisco (Diogo Dória) – who also happens to be his employer, and whose opposition is unspecified but stern.
   Though set in present-day Lisbon, the essentials of the plot seem scarcely changed from Eça de Queirós’s text and time – when Macário loses his job, he fears “starvation,” a somewhat unlikely prospect for such an able chap in an early 21st century EU member state. But anyone who has visited Lisbon will attest that the stuffy atmosphere and old-fashioned goings-on in Eccentricities are far from fanciful – many areas and corners of the city still have at least one foot in the past, social behaviour proceeding in a courtly manner, and at a sedate pace, which strikes many visitors as startlingly quaint.
   And Eccentricities isn’t without certain decidedly “modern” touches, such as the way De Oliveira handles the picture’s framing story – Macário is relating the narrative in retrospect, during a train journey to the Algarve. His interlocutor, a respectable middle-aged woman (Leonor Silveira), listens with rapt attention – more often than not, staring directly into the camera with oddly unnerving consequences for the viewer.
So while it’s hard to fully sympathise with Macário’s frustration at the “eccentricities” of both his beloved and of the society within which he’s trapped, the film is nevertheless a divertingly strange miniature, quite unlike anything else that’s around at the moment. Then again, maybe the coming decades will reveal it to be entirely typical of what we might soon  term “centenarian cinema.”

Neil Young
22nd  March 2010

ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE HAIRED GIRL : [6/10] : Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura : Portugal (/Spn/Fr) 2009 : Manoel DE OLIVEIRA:  64m (BIFF) :  seen 19th March at Pictureville Cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (Bradford International Film Festival) – complimentary ticket  : {16/28}

THE ELEPHANT MAN : [10/10] : David LYNCH : US(/UK) 1980 : 123m (BBFC) : seen 20th March at Pictureville Cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (Bradford International Film Festival) – complimentary ticket  {28/28}

NB : Neil Young has been International Programming Consultant for the Bradford International Film Festival since 2005, but had no role in the programming of any of the titles listed above.