Julian Schnabel’s third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, continues his apparent fixation with artists who died in their prime. His first films, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), were about the graffiti artist turned neo-expressionist painter Jean Michel Basquiat (dead of a drug overdose at the age of 27) and Cuban poet and writer Reynaldo Arenas (suffering from AIDS, Arenas committed suicide at age 46). Here Schnabel, with the considerable help of screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Being Julia), has adapted the autobiographical work of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby to film, and while Bauby might be the least important of Schnabel’s trio in terms of his own artistic accomplishment, there’s little question that the film is the most successful of Schnabel’s encounters with cinema to date.
For those not familiar with Bauby’s story, he was the victim of a stroke at 43 that left him in what’s called “locked-in syndrome,” a rare condition in which the patient is almost completely paralyzed, but otherwise in complete control of his faculties. In Bauby’s case, his left eye was still functional and he learned to communicate by spelling out words one letter at a time by way of blinking. In this manner, he dictated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the title referring to his locked-in state—the diving bell—and his beating heart—the butterfly). The book was published shortly before his death.
Perhaps the fact that the book is itself a mixture of reality, memory and fantasy is the reason that the adaptation resulted in Schnabel’s most unforced cinematic work yet. Schnabel’s first films—whatever their merits—are often a little full of themselves (or of Schnabel’s overbearing desire to be different for its own sake), too focused on the idea of presenting the whole life of the subject rather than its essence. The form of Diving Bell effectively constrains the latter biopic pitfall, while Bauby’s own fantasizing provides an anchor for Schnabel’s Fellini-esque outbursts (it helps that Bauby himself named the balcony he spends much time on Cinecitta after the studio where Fellini worked).
None of this is to indicate that Diving Bell is anything like a perfect film. It is, however, a frequently compelling and powerful work that finally becomes a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit—albeit blessedly not of the sweeping-crane-shot and swell-of-lachrymose-music variety. There are splendid performances in the film—notably from Mathieu Amalric as Bauby and Emmanuelle Seigner as his estranged wife, along with a heartbreaking cameo by Max von Sydow as Bauby’s aging father. And there are wonderful fantasticated memories (the trip to Lourdes is a highlight), all laced with sardonic humor that keeps the film from bogging into self-seriousness.
But there are some downsides to the film—the biggest of which comes at the very beginning with Schnabel’s decision to present the first 20 or so minutes completely from the point of view of the paralyzed Bauby. The idea behind this bout of My Left Eye-cam is to put the viewer in the position of the protagonist. That was also the idea when Rouben Mamoulian opened his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in much the same manner back in 1931—and I’m not sure it worked any better then, but it was entertaining and creative in a way this is not. What Schnabel has done here is thrust the viewer into the longest dose of subjective camerawork since Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946), where Montgomery shot an entire film from the point of view of his main character (played by Montgomery himself, no less). The result was a fascinating failed experiment. I’d call Schnabel’s use of it a failure, too, but minus the fascinating aspect. Rather than drawing the viewer in, it serves as a constant reminder that you’re watching a movie. And frankly, had he dragged it out too many more minutes, I think I might have bailed on the film altogether—and I’d regret having done that in light of the many remarkable things that took place once Schnabel got past this awkward device.
I’ve made a significant issue of this because it concerns a large chunk of the movie—and also to assure the viewer who might lose patience with it that, yes, it will evolve into a more audience-friendly approach. Rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language.