The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Artistic biography is beautiful but hazy
By Devin D. O’Leary
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow
There’s something wonderful about painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s impressionistic biopic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But there’s also something vaguely frustrating in this soft-focus ode to imagination and Frenchy joie de vivre. Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of the subject at hand, real-life Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a massive stroke, became completely paralyzed and still managed to dictate his entire biography before dropping dead at age 44.
Schnabel starts by taking us, quite literally, inside the head of Bauby. Nearly the entire first half of the film is seen in first-person perspective through the eyes of Bauby. Since he has just suffered a stroke, the view is hazy, out of focus and frequently locked in. (Bauby, in fact, suffered from something called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which paralyzed his entire body with the exception of his left eyelid.) It certainly gives us a vivid visual clue of what Bauby’s experience must have been like. It is, however, totally disorienting. Even after we grow used to the convention, it’s slightly nausea-inducing--like The Blair Witch Project on Quaaludes.
Flashbacks eventually fill us in on some of Bauby’s history. Being the glamorous, fortysomething senior editor for one of Europe’s most high-fashion magazines, it’s no surprise to find Bauby was somewhat of a ladies’ man. There is something poetically cruel about Europe’s most eligible bachelor being rendered quadriplegic--particularly when his therapists all turn out to be screamingly hot blondes (Marie-Josée Croze and Anne Consigny among them). Bauby’s body may be a prison, but his mind still tends to wander.
This is the realm in which The Diving Bell and the Butterfly dwells. The film’s title, taken from Bauby’s slim autobiography, refers to Bauby’s body, encased in an immobile shell, like a diving suit adrift at the bottom of the ocean, and his mind, free to wander like a floating butterfly. After many months of self-pity, Bauby (embodied by Mathieu Amalric once Schnabel finally abandons the first-person P.O.V.) decides he might as well get with the program and try to rehabilitate himself.
Using a laborious system worked out by his speech therapist (she recites the entire alphabet, and he blinks when she stumbles across the letter he wants), Bauby regains his ability to “speak.” He uses this to dictate his poetic, lust-for-life autobiography.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly leaves little doubt that Bauby’s book is a powerful read. Perhaps the frustrating aspect of the movie, then, is that it concentrates very little on Bauby’s actual life story. Instead, the film burns off its runtime chronicling the weary process Bauby went through just to transcribe it. Charitably, it’s like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel without ever glimpsing the final work. Uncharitably, it’s like watching a documentary on stenography.
What was Bauby really like? How was it running Europe’s reigning fashion bible? How did his playboy lifestyle crash and burn so brightly? There are hints, laced throughout, of Bauby’s many regrets involving his distant father, his various love affairs. But aside from his ultimately dreamy outlook on life, it’s hard to get a handle on who this man really was.
As in his previous films (Before Night Falls, Basquiat), Schnabel seems most interested in the detached, almost otherworldly vision of artists. In the case of previous subjects Reinaldo Arenas and Jean-Michel Basquiat, that perspective came from somewhat more internal sources. In the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, it took the external happenstance of his stroke to stamp out the sybaritic businessman and unleash the introspective poet.
Without a doubt, Schnabel’s film captures the idea that, although the human body may be prone to frailty, the human spirit is forged from a more indestructible alloy. It’s a grim but beautiful visual poem full of dreamy, half-liquid images and is destined to captivate audiences prone to artistic introspection. I just wish it left me with a clearer picture of the man who inspired it.
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