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Masculine Redemption: “Diving Bell” and “Protagonist”

Masculine Redemption: "Diving Bell" and "Protagonist"

Because I already reviewed Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and Jessica Yu’s “Protagonist” at past film festivals showings — both of which are opening in theaters in New York today — why not post a recap? I hadn’t thought that the two films have much in common: one is a French-language impressionist bio-pic; the other a stylized documentary about four men of extremes inspired by the plays of Euripides. But perhaps proving Yu’s point: the story of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby is similarly Euripidean: brash workaholic womanizer suffers stroke and finds redemption and humanity in the end…

Affective, poetic and yet surprisingly conventional, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a confident follow-up to “Before Night Falls.” For extended parts of the film, Schnabel uses a first-person camera to insert the viewer into Bauby’s claustrophobic point of view. As he slowly learns to communicate by blinking, the film offers flashbacks and fantasies, and touches on his relationships with his ex-wife, kids and lover. But Schnabel never gives a complete sense of who Bauby was before the accident. Was he a self-centered bastard, now getting his comeuppance, as is suggested? If so, maybe this elision prevents the film from being overly sentimental or preachy and lets the viewer more easily into Bauby’s predicament. But it also overly simplifies the character and his plight.

In Yu’s intriguing experiment “Protagonist,” she finds four lives that mirror the dramatic arc of a specific Euripidean tragedy: that of the extreme personality. Yu chronicles the men’s stories using traditional interviews and archival footage, but also wooden puppets that evoke an ancient Greek chorus. In interstitial segments, the puppets also quote Euripides (“there is pleasure in hardship,” etc.), and throughout the film, the men’s lives are broken up into chapters of dramatic notions, from “Provocation” to “Turning Point,” “Catharsis” to “Resolution.” There are several others, such as “Fever,” “Reversal,” and “Cost,” which, after a while, begin to feel overloaded. Some concepts are explored more fully, while others are glazed over.

The mix of the more obvious Euripidian references (the puppets, the pretentious 5th century dialogue) with the modern lives of the men doesn’t always cohere. Sometimes, such complex insertions distract from the stories. But admittedly, at other times, the juxtapositions of the men’s experiences under a certain rubric, such as “Certainty,” reveals a stimulating link between the characters: All of the men at some point find themselves vexingly fixed to a black-and-white existence, unable to find the gray areas in between.

But what’s most interesting about these four men seems to have little to do with Euripides, and more to do, perhaps, with Sophocles. If they’re not out to kill their fathers a la Oedipus, both literally and metaphorically, they’re struggling with their masculinity and what it means to be a man. I may be over-extending the connection, but the theme is also one of Schnabel’s favorites, as the emasculated Jean-Dominique Bauby also contends with a manhood that’s been paralyzed, and yet tantalizingly reinvigorated by the ladies he sees from his hospital bed. He also happens to have a strong father figure–and in one of the film’s most devastating scenes, Max von Sydow, as Bauby’s elderly dad, delivers the kind of belated, heartfelt fatherly connection that each of the characters in “Protagonist” so dearly needed.

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