New York Times
November 30, 2007
Body Unwilling, a Mind Takes Flight
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 30, 2007
Julian Schnabel has made three feature films: “Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls” and now “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” All are biographical, examining the lives of real people, and in each case the protagonist struggles with a condition of literal or metaphorical imprisonment. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mr. Schnabel’s younger colleague in the New York art scene of the 1980s, is trapped by addiction and by his outsider status. Reinaldo Arenas, the gay Cuban poet whose memoir was the basis of “Before Night Falls,” is censored, harassed and locked up by successive dictatorships.
Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French fashion magazine editor and the author of the international best seller on which “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is based, suffered an even more extreme form of confinement. In his early 40s, he suffered a stroke that left him in a rare affliction called “locked-in syndrome.” He retained vision and hearing, and his mind continued to function perfectly, but his body was almost completely paralyzed. He could not move or speak. In the film a friend, visiting him in the hospital in Berck, a wind-swept seaside town in northern France, reports the latest gossip from the cafes of Paris: “Have you heard? Jean-Dominique is a vegetable.”
“What kind of vegetable?” Jean-Dominique wonders. “A carrot? A pickle?” Like his condition, the metaphor is cruel, but not altogether unredeemable. As we come to understand in the course of this fierce and lovely film, his existence is not that of a vegetable but rather of a garden, a hothouse of consciousness, memory and ecstatic imagination.
Jean-Dominique is played by Mathieu Amalric, a French actor whose twitching, antic physicality makes the character’s immobility all the more painful. But “The Diving Bell,” true to its hero and its literary source, is neither morbid nor mawkish. Propped up in a wheelchair, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye (the other, in one especially nightmarish scene, has been sewn shut to prevent infection), he remains a sensualist, a bon vivant and a keen literary wit.
But never a saint. Before his stroke Jean-Dominique led a life of glamour, pleasure and self-indulgence, for which he never apologizes. He had recently left Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), his longtime partner and the mother of his three children, an abandonment that seemed to follow a series of betrayals. Céline appears, nonetheless, at the hospital in Berck, fighting back tears and demonstrating a loyalty that comes close to masochism. In spite of his lapses, she clearly loves Jean-Dominique, and she is not alone. Besides other women (Marina Hands, most memorably), there are acquaintances, colleagues (notably Isaach de Bankole) and Jean-Dominique’s father, a rogue of the old school played with magnificent poignancy by Max von Sydow.
The phrase “triumph of the human spirit” hovers over “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” along with a swarm of other empty, uplifting clichés. But Mr. Schnabel and the screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, have other themes in mind. Limitation, constraint, incarceration — these may be, as I’ve suggested, the shared premises of Mr. Schnabel’s films (and also of some of Mr. Harwood’s work, notably his script for “The Pianist”).
Their common subject, however, is freedom, the self-willed liberation of a difficult, defiant individual. But Mr. Schnabel is not content simply to state or to dramatize this idea. Rather, he demonstrates his own imaginative freedom in every frame and sequence, dispensing with narrative and expository conventions in favor of a wild, intuitive honesty.
And yet he also shows astonishing formal control. The movie begins claustrophobically, as we see the blurry bustle of the hospital room from Jean-Dominique’s hazy, panicked perspective. Faces loom suddenly and awkwardly into view, while his captive consciousness writhes in its cage, trying to make contact with the world outside.
After a while it does, with the help of a speech therapist (the marvelously sensitive Marie-Josée Croze) who patiently teaches Jean-Dominique to turn his left eyelid into a means of communication. She sits beside him, reciting the alphabet and stopping when he blinks, piecing together words and sentences from his signals.
Later an amanuensis (Anne Consigny) takes her place, and together she and Jean-Dominique compose the compact, lyrical book that will become Mr. Schnabel’s expansive, passionate film. Their attention also introduces both the patient and the audience to an intense, nonsexual intimacy that is itself a form of love.
As Jean-Dominique’s eloquence takes flight, so does Mr. Schnabel’s. Condemned to live in an eternal present, Jean-Dominique is also freed from the tyranny of time, and so the film ranges freely into fantasy, speculation and remembrance, given shape not by a plot but by the ecstatic logic of images and associations. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he uses light and color to convey the world of sensations from which Jean-Dominique is exiled, but which he appreciated all the more acutely for that reason.
And so, curiously enough, a movie about deprivation becomes a celebration of the richness of experience, and a remarkably rich experience in its own right. In his memoir Mr. Bauby performed a heroic feat of alchemy, turning horror into wisdom, and Mr. Schnabel, following his example and paying tribute to his accomplishment, has turned pity into joy.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some sexual situations.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Julian Schnabel; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Ronald Harwood, based on the book “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Juliette Welfling; music by Paul Cantelon; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
WITH: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Emmanuelle Seigner (Céline), Marie-Josée Croze (Henriette), Anne Consigny (Claude), Patrick Chesnais (Dr. Lepage), Niels Arestrup (Roussin), Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Marie Lopez), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Father Lucian/Lourdes vendor), Marina Hands (Josephine), Issach de Bankole (Laurent), Max von Sydow (Papinou) and Anna Chyzh (model).