At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) won the jury’s Best Director award for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his French-language adaptation of the bestselling memoir by the late Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was felled by a massive stroke at age 43 and left fully conscious but completely paralyzed, save for the ability to rotate his head and blink his left eye. (It was by blinking, using an ingenious alphabet system devised by one of his speech therapists, that Bauby was eventually able to “dictate” his book.) And if such awards were determined solely on the basis of quantity, there would be no question that Schnabel’s was deserved, for there is more directing per square inch of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly than one is likely to find in any other movie released this year.
The movie’s central gimmick — and, make no mistake, it’sa gimmick — is that, for large chunks of the running time, we see things as Schnabel imagines that Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) saw them, from a fixed perspective and with many strange tricks of the light. Shot by the acclaimed Polish cinematographer (and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator) Janusz Kaminski, Diving Bell is an ocular orgy of blurred images, flickering exposures, distorted wide angles and extreme close-ups. In one especially you-are-there moment, we see the occlusion of Bauby’s atrophied right eye from the inside out (an image Schnabel and Kaminski devised by applying two layers of latex to the camera lens and then sewing them together). Even when Schnabel drops the subjective POV, or lapses into flashbacks from Bauby’s prestroke life, he employs the same rampant overstylization, so there’s almost no variety to the film’s visual language, as though Bauby had been seeing out of one eye since birth. It’s the most sensually assaulting movie in recent memory, with the possible exception of Michael Bay’s Transformers, and yet many of the same people who criticize Bay for his attention-deficient aesthetics are falling over each other to praise Schnabel, because instead of ransacking the storehouse of commercial advertising for his inspiration, he steals his visual tricks from more highfalutin sources: Fellini, Stan Brakhage and the British filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin, who has made a series of movies chronicling his own battle with the debilitating effects of polio.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — the title comes from Bauby’s metaphor for the disparity between his lifeless, imprisoning body and his hyperactive mind — is one of those movies that tends to get sold as “an inspiring testament to the power of human imagination,” but what good is a movie about imagination in which the director does so much imagining for the audience that we can’t get a thought in edgewise? When Bauby wrote about the waking dreams he would conjure up as a way of escaping his hospital room in the seaside town of Berck-sur-Mer, they seemed fanciful and light — gourmet dinners in four-star restaurants and imagined meetings with the empress wife of Napoleon III. But when Schnabel literalizes these fantasies on screen in his strenuous, overstated way, they have the thudding obviousness of late-period Fellini or Terry Gilliam. By the time Vaslav Nijinsky starts doing grand jetés down the hospital corridors, you may wish that Schnabel had taken a page from director Derek Jarman’s deathbed opus, Blue, and simply related Bauby’s story as voice-over against an unchanging monochromatic screen. (As it is, Amalric’s performance consists almost entirely of voicing Bauby’s inner thoughts, with Schnabel’s camera standing in for the actor in most scenes.)
Of course, Bauby’s story is remarkable — just not for the reasons that Schnabel and his screenwriter, Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar for The Pianist), keep telling us. They focus so narrowly on the idea of communication — on how Bauby, despite his condition, managed to re-establish contact with the outside world — that it’s as though My Left Foot (a movie to which Diving Bell will inevitably be compared) had never moved beyond its early scene of palsy-stricken author and painter Christy Brown picking up a piece of chalk between his toes and writing for the first time. What Schnabel and Harwood fail to realize is that what made My Left Foot and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (clearly another Schnabel touchstone) great movies was the sense that being confined to a wheelchair or a hospital bed in no way ennobled their protagonists or diminished the messy tangle of their personal lives. Much the same could be said of Bauby, a bon vivant who, at the time of his stroke, had recently separated from the mother of his two young children and moved in with his mistress. But the delicious idea of these two beauties continuing to vie for Bauby’s affections, even in his semivegetative state — whereupon they are joined by a parade of heart-stoppingly gorgeous therapists and pathologists — is touched on by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly only fleetingly, chiefly during one extraordinary scene not in the book, in which Bauby must prevail on his former lover (the superb Emmanuelle Seigner) to “translate” for him during a telephone call to his current flame.
There are a handful of similarly affecting moments scattered throughout, including two scenes featuring Max von Sydow as Bauby’s 92-year-old father, and they work in a way the rest of the film doesn’t because they’re the ones in which Schnabel (who himself has five children from two marriages and cared for his own nonagenarian father toward the end of his life) seems to be commuting with his subject on a particularly personal level. Too often, though, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly feel grotesquely calculated, especially the more Schnabel ratchets up the inspirational platitudes (“Hold fast to the human inside of you and you’ll survive” is the advice of one of Bauby’s visitors) and pours on a self-pitying musical score (by ex–Wild Colonials member Paul Cantelon) of exactly the sort that Bauby, who maintained an acerbic sense of humor about his situation until the very end, would have despised. The inelegant yet functional name of Bauby’s rare condition was “locked-in syndrome,” and here too there seems to be the raw materials for a vastly more intriguing movie, trapped beneath the surface of a boilerplate Hollywood weepie about terminal illness as a surefire path to personal redemption. It’s like a butterfly with lead for wings.
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THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY | Directed by JULIAN SCHNABEL | Written by RONALD HARWOOD, based on the book by JEAN-DOMINIQUE BAUBY | Produced by KATHLEEN KENNEDY and JON KILIK | Released by Miramax Films | The Landmark