This was fascinating for various reasons. It’s a classical narrative, but it still features a few dream-logic sections. It was nominated for eight Oscars, rare for Lynch films, and you can see why, as it features an outsider hero who gains a place in society. At the same time, it is about spectacle. Lynch compares two modes of spectacular presentation, with Merrick put on display in both the freak show and scientific contexts. Later, he is put on display to society, and while he is given a voice in this context, the question of exploitation still lingers. Viewers of the film are, of course, implicated in this exploitation.
There are three major surrealist passages in the film, at the beginning, climax and end (excluding the Fellini-esque return to the freak show in the second act). The beginning expresses Merrick’s birth trauma through slow dissolves of slow motion elephants and closeups of his mother screaming, with expressive and disturbing sound design of course. The climax occurs when Merrick watches a play: his ultimate triumph in the film is to assume the position of spectator rather than spectacle. Rather than show the staging of the play in detail, Lynch again shifts to slow dissolves, semi-abstract closeups of stage action details, and slips in a shot of Merrick’s “owner” in a cage. It’s a beautiful idea; Merrick’s victory over the antagonist is purely imaginary, through the art of spectacle. The final passage is right at the end of the film and represents Merrick’s death, which visually mirrors his birth as it returns to the closeup image of his mother. Instead of elephants, we have the night sky and a long dissolve to white.
So in the most intense moments, Lynch turns to surrealism, but leaves the rest of the plot to a more conventional telling.