The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

January, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Julian Schnabel

Starring:Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, and Max Von Sydow

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The creative process may be a fascinating one, but it’s awfully difficult to visually express in movies… and harder still to make the effort interesting. In screen biographies from Van Gogh, (Lust For Life) to Beethoven, (Immortal Beloved) to Jackson Pollock, (Pollock) a host of talented directors and actors have found it nearly impossible to convey the richness and complexity of their subjects’ lives and each failed to convey just how their obviously fascinating stories might be compellingly presented. The result has been a host of films that neither explain nor inspire. But sometime-director Julian Schnabel, a painter of no small personal reputation, has struck on an interesting approach to the problem in his three films; he chooses artists forced by their circumstances to work under enormous pressure.

As someone with only a spotty knowledge of 20th century art, I’ve always found the neo-expressionist works of Julian Schnabel, (especially the pieces composed on broken shards of ceramic plates) too relentlessly “of the moment” to stand time’s critical test, but when he assumes the director’s chair in films which examine the lives of other artists forced to create in hostile environments, Schnabel commands considerable attention.  I haven’t had the chance to see his first film, (Basquait), Schnabel’s take on the young artist who became a crassly-manipulated art world phenomenon before dying of a drug overdose at the tender age of 27, but his second effort, (Before Night Falls) presented a stunning examination of the gay Cuban poet/novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Schnabel displayed a visual style in that movie perfectly suited to the flamboyant personality of  his subject, allowing Javier Bardem, (up for an Oscar in this year’s No Country For Old Men) to draw a dazzlingly sympathetic portrayal of Arenas.

In Diving Bell, Schnabel applies a remarkably fluid visual style to the final year in the life of French fashion editor and author Jean-Dominique Bauby, immobilized by a paralyzing stroke at age 43. Bauby’s mind wasn’t affected, but the stroke left him with physical control of only his left eyelid. Despite those devastating circumstances, Bauby worked with therapists to dictate a memoir capturing his struggle to find meaning in the staggeringly altered conditions in which he found himself, allowing him to give expression to the surprisingly vivid mental contours he discovered during his physical captivity.

Schnabel’s camera becomes Bauby’s damaged eyes as the film opens, offering a lop-sided view of the world through half-focused images which herald the loss of sight in his right eye. Responding with a predictable mixture of shock, anger and terror at his bodily imprisonment, Diving Bell captures Bauby’s wordless communications with his caregivers, wife, father and mistress in an elaborate and agonizingly time-consuming process which involved blinking to recitations of the letters of the alphabet, arranged in their order of their most frequent use, as Bauby might have found them on a typewriter’s keyboard. 

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s, (The Pianist) brisk and unsentimental screenplay converts the inherent limitations of Bauby’s treatment into scenes which convey the complexity of the rehabilitation process, the drama of Bauby’s increasingly successful efforts to communicate and the emotional journey he made in rejecting what could easily have become a horrifying slide into depressed rage. Schnabel accomplishes this without gliding over Bauby’s faults; there’s an ample supply of male vanity in this urbane gentleman, which the film’s judiciously-placed flashbacks present with clear-eyed frankness. Bauby’s can tenderly shave the face of his aged and infirm father, but he’s also capable of cruelly forcing his wife to act as go-between with his callously self-absorbed mistress, professing undying love for the latter through the mouth of the former. Bauby’s ordeal produced a memoir of unvarnished candor and the director’s success in presenting this highly complex man provides French actor Mathieu Amalric, (Munich) the role of a lifetime, one which has already earned him a Cesar, (the French equivalent of an Oscar) as best actor. Schnabel also pries a brief but touching portrait from the ageless Max von Sydow as the mentally vital but physically decrepit father forced to endure his son’s catastrophic deterioration. A quartet of stunningly beautiful and intelligent actresses round out the cast; I’ve not seen any of them before, but they portray Bauby’s wife, mistress, speech and physical therapists with appealing intensity, proving that Schnabel’s ability to recognize beauty equals his ability to capture it on-screen.

But it’s Schnabel’s ability to create sensuous images, coupled with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s seamless camerawork which makes this movie so stunning; the director has said that he often begins with visual ideas and then finds ways to work them into his storylines. That surely explains his extended shot of a woman’s billowing hair, seen from the rear passenger seat in Bauby’s convertible, a wordless description of the joyous freedom of human movement. Schnabel captures Bauby’s isolation by repeatedly employing an old-fashioned diving suit sinking ever more deeply into murky sea water, a vaguely recognizable human face peering out of it claustrophobic face mask. When Bauby’s attendants move him from the rooms of the seaside hospital in which his therapy sessions take place, they place him on a platform-chair mounted at the water’s edge; the camera later returns to this image, recording waves as they ensnare his perch, as if to isolate him even further from the world around him. Yet these beautifully terrifying graphic reminders of Bauby’s isolation provide him the opportunity to observe that he can still go, as he puts it, “anywhere I wish in my mind”. 

  The verdict? Despite its generally downbeat storyline, Diving Bell provides a remarkably spirited and life-affirming experience, one that deserves the critical praise it’s received. This one easily ranks as one of the very best films of recent memory.

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