The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is pure cinema, a world distilled down to the simplest gestures and actions, where emotions are formed in the space between imagination and reality and the fragile temporality of the body and of human life is the source of meaning and empathy. Schnabel’s film is about death (Schnabel cites the loss of his father as a major inspiration during the formulation of the project) and how to create a meaningful life, but it is also about the movies and the camera, the way in which art and creation make meaning in the world. Watching Mathieu Amalric’s haunting portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor at Elle magazine who suffers a stroke and ends up with a perfectly active mind trapped in a body that can only move a single eyelid, you can truly imagine the terror of a life locked-in, the horror of the experience, which only makes Bauby’s feat of personal will and imagination, his expression, all that much more rich for viewers.
In my original consideration of the film, I wrote:
“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.
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.”
I can’t get this movie out of my head, and after a really and truly obnoxious and horrible experience listening to a press conference with Schnabel following the press screening at the New York Film Festival a few years ago, I was very heartened to listen to a well considered conversation between Schnabel and Charlie Rose, which I can’t recommend highly enough for those looking for insights both into the film and the brilliant artistic mind behind it. I have to say that this discussion revolutionized my thinking about Schnabel as a man and while that has almost nothing to do with the reading and meaning of the film itself, it certainly enriched my love for it. It is so refreshing to see a conversation like this about a film, about an artist, about feeling and life, on American TV. Take a few minutes to enjoy.
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis