Like his previous films, “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” Julian Schnabel‘s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” attempts to elevate the middle-brow biopic to the status of high-brow art cinema. Schnabel, an artist and sometimes filmmaker, has carved out a niche for himself crafting visually arresting, loosely conventional movies inspired by the lives of noteworthy artists and writers. In the case of “Diving Bell,” adapted from a memoir of the same title, the noteworthy individual in question is Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of French “Elle” who was almost completely paralyzed after suffering a massive stroke at the age of 43. Despite his condition, referred to as locked-in syndrome, Bauby eventually learned to communicate by blinking his left eyelid, dictating his memoir to a translator, one letter at a time. It’s a remarkable story, and depending on how you see it, it’s both unadaptable and profoundly cinematic. “Diving Bell”‘s protagonist is largely immobile and to a certain extent static, but he is also the embodiment of spectatorship, an individual reduced to an eye, an eye reduced to a camera.
“Diving Bell” picks up in medias res, shortly after Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) has suffered his stroke. Schnabel introduces Bauby’s physical state through rigorously maintained point-of-view shots for much of the first half of the film. With bold literal-mindedness, Schnabel keeps his camera immobile and his frame often canted in a direct attempt to recreate his subject’s medically induced imprisonment. Amalric’s alternately desperate, bitter, and amusing voiceovers provide an interior monologue, while Schnabel and his brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who has shot every Spielberg film since “Schindler’s List“) compensate for their fixed camera with disorienting and often beautiful use of lighting, focus, and framing. Though the camera doesn’t move, the shot compositions are nevertheless remarkably dynamic.
Eventually, Schnabel breaks from the rigorous aesthetic of the first part of his film, flashing back to episodes in Bauby’s life and visualizing his fantasies. These episodes may be a bit of a cop-out, since they hedge on the film’s initial commitment to aligning our point-of-view with Bauby’s, but they liberate “Diving Bell” from its oppressive rendering of his condition. As he slowly learns to communicate and begins to write his memoir, there’s an undeniable relief that comes with the occasional change in scenery. But most of the emotional and dramatic conflict here is fairly generic, despite tender, subtle performances from much of the cast, including Amalric, Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father, and Emmanuelle Seigner as his ex-wife. Through these vignettes, we get the sense that Bauby was something of a selfish but well-intentioned mover-shaker type, neither an especially good nor an especially bad man who just happened to suffer a traumatic fate and to respond with triumphant determination, but his condition and his response to that condition are what make him interesting as a character, much moreso than his larger psychological and moral journey.
If the film succeeds in evoking Bauby’s subjective experience and celebrating his tremendous accomplishment, it also aestheticizes and literalizes that experience, twisting it into a narrative of transcendence and redemption. In that sense, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which earned Schnabel the best director prize at 2007’s Cannes Film Festival, manages to be both admirably daring and utterly conventional. So is this art cinema posing as a middle-brow biopic, or a middle-brow biopic posing as art cinema? Either way, it’s an engrossing oddity, a film that is too superficial and obvious to be truly profound but also too strikingly vivid and affecting to be dismissed.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and manager of education programs at the Museum of the Moving Image.]