Monday morning arrived with the sound of an early alarm. I jumped from my bed, hit the off button on the clock-radio and grabbed a quick shower before a groggy, wordless walk with Holly to the subway and a relatively quiet D Train ride to Lincoln Center for the opening day of press screenings at the New York Film Festival. We were greeted by a line of equally early birds and after spotting a few familiar faces in the line, we all settled into the newly refurbished theater for the first screening of the festival and one I was dying to see, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. The film is an early contender for my favorite of the year and stands as the finest movie of Julian Schnabel’s career.
What makes The Diving Bell and The Butterfly unique is that Schnabel has taken an idea that, while perfect for literature, seems antithetical to the cinema and turned it into a thing of absolute beauty; The story of an interior life, forged by a terrible medical condition, that is essentially an act of self-reinvention. After a gorgeous opening credit sequence which features a montage of antique x-rays, Schnabel immediately disorients with the camera, putting the viewer in the first person role of former Elle Magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) as he awakens from a weeks-long coma. The camera lens drifts in and out of focus as Bauby is probed and questioned by a battery of medical professionals while his unarticulated thoughts are used as dialogue. The immediate response is one of empathy as the audience experiences the feeling of disorientation, but it is not without purpose; Schnabel uses his opening gambit to shape the narrative purpose of the film.
Before: Jean-Dominique (Mathieu Amalric) in his Elle days in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
This is Bauby’s story exclusively and as he learns the tools he needs to communicate the rich complexity of his inner-life, the film’s style and technique grows with him and our experience as an audience gets richer and richer the more we experience Bauby’s development. Suffering from “locked-in syndrome” after suffering a massive stroke, Bauby is essentially an artistic mind trapped in a severely debilitated body; Like a diver sinking in a diving bell (a heavy, airtight underwater chamber), Bauby is vividly aware of his circumstances and the world around him. His motion, however, is limited to the use of one eye and, after some work with a therapist, he begins to communicate by listening to a series of letters and blinking to indicate the letter he wishes to use. Using this brilliant technique, Bauby is able to slowly articulate his thoughts to both his loved ones and his translator, unleashing an inner-world of deep feeling and poetry that Schnabel uses as a launching pad for his own beautiful cinematic ideas about the world of the artist’s imagination.
And here, what seems the most terrifying of experiences for someone like me, the deep physical isolation of being unable to move or speak, becomes fertile ground for some of the film’s most poetic and beautiful passages; When Bauby speaks of the way he imagines his own former physical appearance, Schnabel uses old stills of Marlon Brando horsing around (and Bauby’s voice yells, as if to Schnabel himself, “That’s Marlon Brando!”). When Bauby discusses his own mortality, Schnabel gives us images of glaciers collapsing into frozen seas, a gentle reminder that we all face extinction and death. Which is, in the end, the beautiful acceptance at the heart of the film; The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a lesson in living and dying, of being born and of being forced to let go. This places it perfectly within the realm of Schnabel’s concerns as a Director; In both Basquiat and Before NIght Falls we see creative lives destroyed by the machinations of the external world. What makes this film so much more meaningful to me than Schnabel’s two previous films is that he has inverted this idea and arrived at the same place; We see Bauby’s interior life re-born, an artist forged in a kind of physical death with a new palette of experience blossoming inside of him.
Man Of Letters: Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
Here, it must be said that for all of Schnabel’s best intentions and the brilliance of his formal technique, without the central performance given by Mathieu Amalric, I am not sure if the film would have worked. Thankfully, we’ll never know. I must confess that, in usual cinematic circumstances, I consider able-bodied actors playing disabled people to be a sort of Oscar-baiting minstrel act that sacrifices empathy for showy, stagy emotional “moments” (I think of films like Awakenings, I Am Sam and The Other Sister and I shudder with embarrassment). In this case, Amalric is only able to use about 75% of his face to deliver one of the most heart-wrenching performances I have ever seen; He says more with his single eye than many actors can using an arsenal of technique. In a stand-out scene in the film, Bauby must communicate his sadness to his mistress with only his long-time partner (and the mother of his children) present to translate for him; Amalric’s eye delivers the weight of both the gratitude and hurt of the moment with a depth and clarity that cuts to the bone.
Of course, there are those who will say that Schnabel’s images have romanticized the situation (and Bauby’s faith in his own imagination) at the expense of the loss and grief at the heart of Bauby’s experience, but I thoroughly disagree; What makes this story possible as a film is Schnabel’s dedication to matching Bauby’s own poetry shot for shot, word for word. In lesser hands, I could imagine a cautionary juxtaposition of Bauby’s halcyon days at the superficial world of Elle Magazine played against some sort of punitive post-stroke interiority. Thank god Schnabel is far too great an artist for such moralizing; In my opinion, this film is a near-perfect achievement in the art of cinematic empathy. Without an implicit recognition of the beauty in the world, a beauty matched equally by the horror of his condition and his own death, Bauby’s work would be without meaning, and perhaps he would never have been able to complete the herculean task of composing his book. How could anyone create beauty under such trying circumstances if they didn’t experience it deeply? In his writing, Bauby was fighting for beauty, for the validity of the inner-life of words and ideas, and Schnabel’s visual translation is at once the Director’s deeply personal interpretation of the spirit of Bauby’s work as well as a profoundly moving presentation of the writer’s hurt and loss. The movie is a heartbreaking celebration of the human will and it is a superlative accomplishment.