Julian Schnabel doesn’t know what to call his latest project. By most formal accounts, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is a film, his fourth in 11 years. I’d call it a visual poem. I’d also call it a masterpiece. The story was adapted for screen by Ronald Harwood, from the best-selling memoir of former French Elle editor-in-chief, Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby suffered a stroke at the age of 43, which left him with Locked-In Syndrome--conscious and aware but completely paralyzed save the ability to
blink his left eye.
With the help of a system created by his speech therapist, played here with visceral acuity by Marie-Josée Croze, Bauby blinks his memoir, one letter at a time. The incredulity of the story is not the seeming impossibility of the process, rather it¹s Bauby¹s magnificent sense-of-humor, which never falters. Schnabel was attracted to this story because, ‘Bauby turned his life into art and what he was able to do, what was satisfying about it, is that he was able to transgress death by writing that book. I think that the information of looking into your interior life makes you alive. The people who are just living and are unconscious, they¹re just--they're not alive, whether your body is working or not.’ Schnabel, best known, rather unfairly, as an '80s art star whose work sold for prices enormous enough to match his perceived ego. He will tell you he’s a painter who makes films. We should all be grateful. Schnabel has managed to paint a hopeful, poetic story about dying and in so doing, a celebration of life. And love.
Another of Schnabel’s achievements is his cast. The phenomenal French actor Mattieu Almaric stars as Bauby and delivers a remarkably intimate, charismatic and complex performance. It’s a testament to Almaric’s skill that the emotion and power of his performance transmit through the near-vegetative state of the character and in the simultaneous reading of subtitles. The movie is in French, a language Schnabel learned, with the help of his cast, in order to direct the story in its native tongue. The choice, clearly not market driven, keenly helps the film maintain its sense of community and communion.
When accepting his best director award at Cannes this year, Schnabel claimed, "I thought I was making a movie about a paralyzed guy but I realized I was making a film about women.’ Bauby is surrounded by women in the hospital, as he was; we are lead to believe, in his vibrant life as an Editor. Emmanuelle Seigner delivers the pain of pure unrequited love as the mother of Bauby¹s children but not object of his affection. And Schnabel’s real-life wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia plays a physical therapist whose compassion swells with sexual energy. Her tongue deserves its own SAG card.
Max von Sydow delivers a heart-wrenching, powerful performance as Bauby’s aging father. One of the films most poignant scenes occurs in flashback where we see able-bodied Bauby shaving his aging and steadily decaying father von Sydow. We are reminded how life can change in an instant.
As a visual artist, you would expect Schnabel to know how he wanted the film to look. Still, he gives rightful credit to his Cinematographer, Oscar-winner Jausz Kaminski for his part in delivering this visually stunning film. Kaminski is a master and a true technician. The images and palette reference, among other things, the colors of French impressionism. The film language takes three positions: We see through Bauby's one working eye, we see him as his caretakers do and we watch through the omniscient storyteller's lens. The images and palette reference, among other things, the colors of French impressionism, a brilliant choice considering the subject and subject matter.
As much as he knew he saw the film before he shot it, he also heard it. The soundtrack samples everything from Bach’s ‘Goldberg variations’ to U2, Tom Waits, scores from Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’ and Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ to Lou Reed and Nino Rota. It¹s as if we are hearing the mix tape of Schnabel’s creative process.
The magnificence of this film is in its storytelling; narrative and metaphorical, visceral and poetic, in the specificity and trauma of one man's life and the universality of pain, pleasure, beauty, love, rejection and redemption.