2007 // France - USA // Julian Schnabel // November 18, 2007 // Theatrical Print
B - Melodramas about infirmity or disability have never struck me as appealing entertainment in the same escapist vein as, say, action films or romantic comedies. Why on earth would anyone want to lose themselves in a tale of human physical frailty, even if said tale is awkwardly molded into an uplifting parable? Perhaps illness, however it is fictionalized, still cuts closer to the bone for me than glossed violence or passion. Regardless, the disease film subgenre is now so common in television film that its typical narrative arc—Struggle Against Adversity Leads to Revelation Just Before Death—has been thoroughly desiccated of emotional heft.
For me, a film in this tradition needs to provide an original reworking or toppling of the formula, or at the very least an unusual level of artistry, for it to command two hours of my attention, let alone a recommendation to others. Happily, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is both novel and beautiful, and all the more remarkable for being a true story. Based on the memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Diving Bell lacks the sort of tidy plotting that might have rendered it stale and unconvincing. This is fortunate, given that its high-concept outline seems improbably cinematic at first blush. Bauby, a lusty Parisian urbanite and editor at ELLE magazine, suffered a stroke in 1995, at the age of forty-three. The event afflicted him with an extraordinarily rare condition known as "locked-in" syndrome. He was aware and lucid, but found that he was paralyzed save for his left eye.
Schnabel adapts Bauby's memoir—from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood—as a dreamy glimpse into the author's post-stroke life, drifting through scenes that are alternately terrifying, absurd, and affecting. The earlier parts of the film are told from Bauby's perspective. Diving Bell opens with the stricken man awakening in the hospital. We are privy to his thoughts as he struggles in bewildered horror to move, or when he responds to his doctors with pissy, silent retorts. Once the oppressive, confining nature of Bauby's condition is established, Schnabel moves the camera to capture Bauby from without, often in flashback. I was impressed with how this transition happens naturally and unnoticeably, after the point-of-view conceit has evolved from flashy to discomforting to forgotten.
Diving Bell is a vivid film, suffused with generous touches of visual dazzle. Occasionally, it veers into uninspired carnival tricks that didn't quite work for me. A gruesome sequence where Bauby's unblinking right eye is stitched up is toe-curlingly effective, but this sort of crude horror seems out of place. Schnabel's periodic use of archival footage for metaphorical or comic effect—a disintegrating ice shelf, a young Marlon Brando—comes across as disorienting. Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a longtime Stephen Spielberg collaborator, are at their best when they are discovering aching beauty in the little things: the way a dress drapes over a sitting woman's thighs; a concrete balcony that stretches out towards a gray, windswept beach; the red pulse of light from a plastic Madonna in a shop window. The film effortlessly persuades us to savor these mundane visual minutiae, mirroring the manner in which Bauby treasures his senses and memories.
While Diving Bell is a striking work of visual art, it is also a wrenching self-portrait of a human being in extraordinary—incomprehensible, really—circumstances. Admittedly, this is due in some part to the astonishing details of Bauby's life once he became imprisoned within his own body (the titular "diving bell"). Slipping through predictable but entirely understandable bouts of confusion, fear, rage, and self-pity, Bauby eventually grasps holds of a purpose. He will author a memoir of his wholly unique experience, capitalizing on a book deal previously intended for a novel. Bauby's astute, compassionate speech therapist devises an ingenious but laborious method of communication. She reads off the letters of the French alphabet, in order of descending usage, and Bauby blinks when she reaches the correct letter. She jots it down. She starts reciting again. Blink. Jot. Recite. Blink. Jot. In this manner, Bauby dictates his book, one letter at a time, to an infinitely patient assistant sent from his publisher. The wonder of this act of creation is dizzying to reflect upon. We are hearing a man's thoughts, spoken in a film, adapted from a book, decoded from the flicking of that man's eye.
While Bauby's story is intriguing in its facts, it is Harwood's script and Schnabel's direction that make it a compelling story. Far too many films aspire to create "complexity" by dropping a reprehensible character into a sympathetic situation, or, worse, by fallaciously juxtaposing moral monstrosity with cultural refinement. (He's a Nazi... but he loves the violin! He's complex!) Bauby, both in his own bracingly honest words and as portrayed by the filmmakers, comes across as naturalistically complex. Prior to his stroke, he is sort of an asshole, but isn't it reasonable that a wealthy, handsome, merchant of chic like Bauby would be sort of an asshole? He misses his three children, and the woman who mothered them, and relishes his all-to-brief visits with them, but he has no maudlin revelations about the importance of family. In a flashback sequence, Bauby visits his homebound elderly father at his flat and gives him a shave. (Max Van Sydow, at once magisterial and wounded as the elder Bauby, is an unexpected pleasure.) There are some verbal barbs, some jokes, some muttered words of warmth. We get the sense of two mature, intelligent Parisian men, full of deep, familial love. In a lesser film, this scene would be manipulated for tragic irony. There would be some festering emotional wounds, or a vital revelation left unspoken... Until It Was Too Late! Instead, when the father later calls the paralyzed son on his speakerphone at the hospital, the filmmakers trust their actors convey the profound agony that the characters feel.
Mathieu Amalric deserves special praise for portraying Bauby with just enough strokes to claim the character, while allowing the man's real-world persona to shine through. Amalric is a French actor of some renown, but I know him only from Munich, where his mercenary intelligence agent provided one of that film's more memorable characters.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the sort of film that should not be my sort of film. Owing to the astounding source material, the thoughtful, humanistic approach to its adaptation, and the sparkle of its visual design, I discovered a deep fondness for it.