Movie review: ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’

In the Blink of an Eye: Stroke victim’s story unfolds as epic poem

Jan. 11, 2008, Austin American-Statesman  

Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” luxuriates in its exquisiteness, sky-writing poetry across a big, brazen canvas that only a great artist would dare fill with such shimmering vision. It abolishes sentimentality for worldly wit, spurns bathos for emotional fluency and embraces possibility in the face of unspeakable calamity. It’s a tough-minded weepie that never asks for your tears — though they’re gladly accepted — appealing instead for astonishment at the invincible life force.

For a film about a man who is totally paralyzed, save for a single eyelid, “Diving Bell” swoons with the joy of movement. Schnabel insists that his camera, under the sure hand of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, swerves, glides. He invites sensual immersion, a feast of canted angles, spinning views of sky and ceiling, flower dreamscapes and claustrophobic close-ups. Shots bear the considered composition of fine photography; images toggle between the frightfully expressionistic and soothingly impressionistic.

Schnabel, one of the late 20th century’s most important painters, performs lilting ballets with the camera to convey the awakening interior world of his real-life subject, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who in the 1990s was the editor of French Elle magazine before having a major stroke at age 42. The stroke condemned the vivacious Bauby to “locked-in syndrome,” a rare condition that leaves the victim lucid of mind and thought but as physically frozen as a tree trunk.

“This is life?” Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wonders in his spooling internal monologue, for his mouth can no longer shape words. What the film so spectacularly rejoins, and what Bauby soon embraces, is: Yes, this is life. Accept it. Most of all, live it.

As a wealthy bon vivant in the haute circles of Paris fashion, Bauby lived high, not with controlled substances, but with his work, women, children and epicurean delights. We see him in flashback as pop songs blast, a montage of a life exultantly, if not reflectively, lived.

After the stroke, Bauby no longer fills spaces. His existence is abbreviated and introverted. The people in his life remain in his orbit, including a pair of toothsome speech therapists (Marie-Josée Croze and, Schnabel’s wife, Olatz Lopez Garamendia), who are shown as melting French visions, bedside angels.

Bauby learns to speak by blinking his left eye when someone, rattling off the French alphabet with monotonous musicality, utters the right letter. He spells words, sentences, paragraphs with a painstaking series of blinks, which is how he transcribed his best-selling 1997 autobiography “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon,” on which the film is based.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” flows with the freedom of flight and discovery. Schnabel puts us in Bauby’s head, rarely outside it, so we too are locked in, unlike disability movies that make us patronizing voyeurs, guilty, pity-dispensing sops. Here, we cannot turn away.

But because it’s all about Bauby shedding the tomblike diving bell, wriggling off the chrysalis and soaring like a butterfly, we join him wherever his mind journeys with his last remaining tools: imagination and memory.

He fashions adventures of exaggerated bravery and beauty and authors his own elation. Sometimes he visits his elderly father (Max von Sydow, that monolith of European gravitas) or his dear children and their mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Other times he skis, surfs, bullfights.

The suave Amalric is charged largely with lying motionless, a watery eyeball bulging open, his lips sealed but bunched in a pendulous droop to one side. It’s the face of a silent-movie monster, a half-melted mask.
As distressing as that face is, Bauby bubbles inside with self-effacing humor, wry acceptance laced with yearning, proving that a life, not a tragedy, still throbs inside this immobilized vessel. He becomes all soul, as the movie does.

And yet Bauby’s lack of anger, sheer raging denial and crushing depression — emotions anyone in his slippers would experience — feels like an elision to preserve his book’s (and, in turn, the film’s) almost whimsical lightness. If it’s a dishonest choice, it never deflates his life-affirming reverie.

With this and his other movies, “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” Schnabel seems to be making a bid to become an auteur of biographies about sensitive, artistic, tragic figures — something one suspects Schnabel is romantically attracted to and that he possibly sees himself as.

The pro of this is that there’s nothing leaden in his work. The con might be daubs of whitewash. The upshot is dark stories with blithe spirits.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” delivers a sneaky, cumulative punch. It’s all slow build, wrenching along the way, with a final release that’s better than beautiful. The footage of mammoth, crumbled glaciers rebuilding themselves during the credit roll provides a shiver of heart-rending euphoria.

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