Painter Brings Writer's Unfilmable Book To Visually Sensuous Life
Julian Schnabel's success as a painter has been handsomely rewarding, so much so that his canvases are often treated skeptically by the struggle-breeds-excellence faction of art aficionados. Other than financial and popular success, though, Schnabel's stature as an artist has allowed him entry into the world of filmmaking. Though he's directed only three features in the past decade--1996's Basquiat, 2000's Before Night Falls, and his latest, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly--it's becoming quite evident that his abilities behind the camera are at least as prodigious as his skills with paint and palette.
In keeping with his predilection for training his camera on artists of unusual provenance, Schnabel's latest movie is about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the author of but one book: 1997's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. While the quantity of Bauby's oeuvre may not rival that of Jean-Michel Basquiat or Reinaldo Arenas, it's the story behind the book that surely attracted Schnabel to the subject. The editor of the French edition of Elle, Bauby suffered a debilitating stroke when he was 43, leaving him in a condition described by doctors as "locked-in syndrome." Bauby (Mathieu Amalric in the movie) could hear, think, and remember just as he had before the stroke, but was paralyzed from head to toe, confined to a hospital on the Normandy coast. The only part of his body that he could move was his left eyelid; with the help of a resourceful therapist, Bauby was eventually able to use that eyelid to communicate. Employing a sort of Morse code--during the recitation of the alphabet, Bauby would blink when the next letter in the word he was attempting to "say" was hit upon--and the dictation skills of an incredibly patient transcriptionist, his book was written.
While many movies have been made about the difficult circumstances that birthed great works, few circumstances have been as difficult as those behind this slim book. Schnabel magnificently captures the duress, despair, and determination Bauby experienced, but never tries to portray the stroke victim as some sort of Special Olympics hero. In fact, by filling in all the bad parts about Bauby's personality--his inflated sense of his own importance, his generally awful parenting skills, his unfaithfulness--the movie makes his struggle that much more engrossing.
In fact, you never come to like Bauby all that much: he's simply too arrogant, self-pitying, and cranky to warm to. But the voyage from the amniotic opening scene where Bauby comes to grips with his condition to the reservedly victorious moment where his wife is reading back the published book to him is absolutely riveting.
By not making Bauby the typical adversity-overcoming protagonist, Schnabel gives wide latitude to make him feel like an actual person. Thus, the movie is filled with multiple flashbacks to his pre-stroke life, all viewed from the perspective of Bauby's memories. There's the Lenny Kravitz photo shoot. There's the gentle moment where he's shaving the face of his aged, housebound father (played by Max Von Sydow). There's a portentous visit to Lourdes with his mistress. And, slowly but surely, the memory of what happened the day of his stroke emerges. That scene is horrifying and pathetic, given the quasi-familial milieu in which it happens.
Even more interesting is the interaction between Bauby and the parade of visitors who come to see him in the hospital. His razor-sharp (and very French) wit was apparently little hindered by the stroke, and the inner monologue he undertakes while being puzzlingly patronized by his friends and business acquaintances is truly hilarious. Eventually, though, as his communication skills increase, the tense interplay between Bauby, his estranged wife, and his three children takes center stage; in many other movies, this would be the moment where the stroke victim takes stock of his "blessings" and tries to make things right. Bauby, however, is far from your average stroke victim.
Schnabel's intense, luxurious, and occasionally fanciful visual style is quite complementary to the story. Bauby's condition is translated quite literally to the audience's perspective, and the flashback sequences are peppered with the same sorts of illogical inclusions and (intentional?) continuity errors that mark many a dream state. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has been called an unfilmable book; Schnabel's adaptation makes it clear that it was really just a book that needed a painter to turn it into a film. H