The whole point of art, really, is to experience the world as others see it. Few artists have taken that imperative as literally, yet at the same time so poetically and imaginatively, as Julian Schnabel in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Schnabel, an established painter whose two previous films have been Basquiat and Before Night Falls, has with Diving Bell made one of 2007's very best and most emotionally resonant films.
Diving Bell has been adapted from a memoir by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle magazine, who in 1995 at the age of 43 suffered a devastating stroke that left him with a rare "locked-in syndrome." While his brain and ears worked fine and he was fully conscious, he couldn't move or speak beyond blinking.
Painstakingly, with the help of a therapist, he learned to communicate by blinking one eye -- the other had to be stitched shut due to an inflammation. He wrote Diving Bell by composing and memorizing passages in his head, then blinking "yes" at appropriate letters as an assistant patiently recited the alphabet over and over. He died shortly after the book was published in 1997.
It's a wrenching story -- terrifying and sad yet also inspirational in terms of what human beings are capable of.
But how do you dramatize it? Schnabel, working with Steven Spielberg's favorite cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, has found a brilliant, daring way.
The film starts out of focus, as if a murky, foggy camera lens is widening. It catches the random sights -- whatever is within its view -- in a hospital room. Suddenly, people notice it and a doctor comes over and peers. We are seeing the room through the eyes of Bauby as he awakes from his stroke. Soon we can hear his thoughts (as voice-over narration) and also hear the medical staff talking as they peer in and out of his line of vision. While Mathieu Amelric (Munich) gives a strong performance as Bauby, we're not allowed to see him, through the eyes of others, until well into the film.
This is right out of the avant-garde, experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage in terms of the randomness of what we see and how we see it and the manipulation of point-of-view. And yet it never for a second feels like "technique" or artiness. It's naturalistic, realistic and enormously empathetic. And for those familiar with the shocking moment in Luis Bunuel's 1929 experimental classic, Un chien andalou, when an eyeball is slit, Schnabel restages that scene in reverse here. When doctors have to sew shut one of Bauby's eyes, we see it from the inside. Rather than being shocking, it's about healing.
Schnabel lets his approach inform rather than limit the film. When the time comes to expand his tools, he does so. Bauby's memories trigger a flashback to his healthy days that ends, startlingly, back in the present with the camera catching him being wheeled down a hospital hallway. From then on, Schnabel moves deftly between flashbacks, Bauby's fantasies, physically limited point-of-view and a more neutral directorial stance that lets us observe him. He emerges as a multidimensional, full-fledged character.
The film also has several wonderful monologues since Bauby must listen in isolation as others (including Max von Sydow as his elderly father) address him in person or by phone. And there's a gorgeous classical score augmented with judiciously chosen Pop tunes.
Although the film's screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, Being Julia) is British, Diving Bell is in French to be true to the characters. This can create mild confusion, since the pronunciation of some letters in the alphabet is different from English. But it's more than made up for by hearing the lilting, musical way that Bauby's speech therapist, Henriett (Marie-Josee Croze), says "Monsieur Bau-beee."
And not incidentally, Diving Bell gives a new and profound meaning to the term "easy on the eyes." Schnabel makes us understand the joy Bauby feels -- the pleasure of seeing beauty -- whenever the faces of Henriett or his lover (and mother of his children) Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) address him (and us) in close-up.
The two women are studies in contrast: Henriett is optimistic and has a radiant, seductive smile; Celine is mournful both about Bauby's condition and the fact he had left her for another woman. There's even a hint of Eric Rohmer-style eroticism in some of Seigner's scenes, as her blowing skirt catches Bauby's limited sight lines.
Schnabel has found so many inventive ways to express the complexity of the paralyzed Bauby's life, while setting such tough standards for himself in the ways to show it, that Diving Bell rises far above the narrative it tells. It often works as pure cinema. Yet the story it tells couldn't be more touching or important. Grade: A
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