“Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris–Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.
No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year…” — Jean-Dominique Bauby, Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly)
I have never read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly), as I am patiently awaiting Julian Schnabel’s film adaptation, but I will. In the intervening months since the end of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, I have been dying to see this film, which tells the story Bauby dictated using a series of blinks of his eye to indicate to his scribe which letter should be selected. According to Wikipedia, “The book took about two hundred thousand blinks to write and each word took approximately two minutes,” which is, I believe, one of the least cinematic sounding processes imaginable (if not one of the most heroic acts of writing possible). Leave it to Julian Schnabel, whose high-profile portraits of the painter Jean Michel Basquiat (in Basquiat) and the poet/novelist Reinaldo Arenas (in Before NIght Falls) for me represent the antithesis of the staid, formulaic biopic, to take on Bauby’s tale.
Schabel is (as is well known to all, I’m sure) a visual artist of the highest order (his paintings are full of muscular color and life) and I think he brings a unique understanding to his cinematic portraits, that of an artist who has personally experienced the herculean struggle of creating something from the void that confronts all of us; The blank canvas that defines what gets created and what never is willed into being. I don’t mean to get too artsy-fartsy on this point, but for me, Schnabel’s understanding of the creative process makes his biographies burn with the constant struggle between his subject’s idealism (that is to say, their political action and their desire to live a principled life) and the constant failures and compromises imposed by the societies in which they live. This is clearly embodied in both Javier Bardem’s performance as Arenas in Before Night Falls (when his character is asked why he writes, he booms the word “Revenge!”) and Jeffrey Wright’s career-launching nonchalance as the visionary Basquiat; Both men live life on their own terms, and both pay a price. Setting aside the details of Bauby’s story (of which I am rather ignorant), I can only anticipate that Bauby’s heroic act of creation will be a springboard for a continuation of Schnabel’s concerns, and I am most grateful for that.
Julian Schnabel’s Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly)
Enter Matthieu Amalric*, who plays the role of Bauby in the film. As long time readers of this blog may know, he’s my favorite working actor. Ever since I saw him in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…, I have gone out of my way to try and see everything he’s done. The pairing of Amalric and Schnabel is one I find particularly exciting because Schnabel seems to bring out the best in his leading actors (both Bardem and Wright were tremendous) and because I haven’t seen Amalric carry a drama on his shoulders in a long, long time. I’m already a sucker for Schnabel’s brand of biography, and for him to have placed Amalric in the lead is a mouth-watering pairing. Fingers crossed that this one delivers on its promise, but really, it seems a lock to be a film I will absolutely love.
In the meantime, you can read the first chapter of the English translation of Bauby’s memoir here; Absolutely gorgeous writing, and I am eager to read the book once the film is behind me.
Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly) is playing at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival, the 2007 New York Film Festival (where I will be seeing it) and the 2007 Toronto Film Festival in the festival’s Premieres section.
Tomorrow: Santosh Sivan’s Before The Rains
*By the way, if anyone would like to finance my idea for a Polanski biopic, Amalric is absolutely PERFECT for the titular director… the resemblance is uncanny… eh, kitty-cat?