Tuesday, December 25, 2007
A movie about a man who cannot move
Summary: Julian Schnabel remains an outsized cultural figure who has dominated the art world and who sometimes has found himself at the center of arguments about the importance of his painting and the size of his ego. I'm not qualified to comment on Schnabel's painting, but after three movies, I feel comfortable saying that he's one hell of a filmmaker. In addition to having an apparently natural talent for the art of film, he's been smart about casting and story selection in three successive movies: "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" and now "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Visually creative and thematically daring, "Diving Bell" earns its place as one of the best movies of the year.
Jean-Dominique Bauby led a seemingly charmed life as a Parisian man-about-town and editor of Elle magazine. But at age 45, Bauby's luck ran out. A massive stroke left him with what the doctors called "locked-in syndrome." Aside from being able to blink with his left eye, Bauby was totally paralyzed. But Bauby also was mentally alert; his lively consciousness was trapped in a near-lifeless body.
The movie has been taken from a memoir that Bauby was able to create with effort that only can be described as gargantuan. Bauby dictated by blinking his eye as an attendant read him the alphabet; a blink signaled when the reader had reached the right letter. Think about that for a second; even writing a small book under such circumstances qualifies as an extraordinary act of will. Bauby died several weeks after the book was published.
Just as Bauby's condition was rare, little about the movie's visual expressions can be called matter-of-fact. Schnabel allows Bauby's alarmingly limited point of view to dominate the picture. We see as Bauby sees, following his thoughts as he awakens from a coma and perceives Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) standing over him. Lepage has been charged with explaining Bauby's condition, and he does so in a frank but perhaps overly chipper way that annoys Bauby.
Bauby's thoughts, as spoken by Mathieu Amalric, the fine actor who plays the fallen editor, serve as a kind of narration for the movie, immediately letting us know that an immobilized body does not mean loss of the ability to detect nonsense and pap. These early scenes are so compelling that we feel every ripple of Bauby's anxiety, as he slowly grasps what has happened to him.
The movie, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, doesn't stay with this perspective. We eventually move in and out of it, as "Diving Bell" expands. But the core of "Diving Bell" involves the brilliant depiction of a journey into the fields of Bauby's memory and imagination. By masterfully immersing us in Bauby's point of view, Schnabel shows us that it's possible to make a truly cinematic movie about a man who cannot move.
Schnabel's film also is a mini-character study. Bauby's no disease-of-the-week foil for an inspirational message. He's rueful enough to grasp and express the ironies that have befallen him. A prime example: He's surrounded by beautiful women, and unable to act on what remains of his sybaritic impulses. Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) helps him learn how to communicate by teaching him to blink to the alphabet. Emmanuelle Seigner portrays the mother of Bauby's children. He pointedly tells us that she's not his wife. He also thinks about the mistress (Julia Hands) who won't visit him.
Although Schnabel sometimes takes us on Bauby's flights of fancy and makes generous use of a subjective camera, he never loses touch with a sense of authenticity. "Diving Bell" was filmed at the hospital where Bauby was treated, and when Schnabel's viewing things from Bauby's point-of-view, the film maintains strict visual discipline.
An additional performance deserves mention: Veteran actor Max von Sydow -- with very little screen time -- creates a rigorous and hauntingly vivid portrait of an aging man in decline. Von Sydow plays Bauby's father, a mini-masterpiece of acting that tells us a lot about what it means to grow old. To make matters more poignant, a father's frailty -- the result of a natural progression of time -- contrasts with the sudden debilitation experienced by his son.
"Diving Bell" gains in stature because it offers us more than an opportunity to experience life from a harrowing perspective. It reminds us that physical trauma does not cause a loss of humanity. Bauby's body may be paralyzed, but his mind? No, that works just fine. He's rueful, caustic, funny and sorrowful -- immobilized but still shockingly human. When the wind flutters the skirt of an attractive visitor, Bauby's eye is drawn to her legs. We do not know whether he watches with the joy of remembered pleasure or with the pain of current deprivation, but he watches right up until the end -- one eye wide open.