Monday, December 31, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

By Elise Nakhnikian

A painter before he was a filmmaker, Julian Schnabel specializes in stories about artists and writers. All three of his increasingly light-footed films -- Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and now The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – were based on true stories about men who lived large, like Schnabel himself, ambitious in their art, voracious in their love lives, and ardent in their pursuit of happiness.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who wrote the memoir of the same name on which The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based, was in the prime of life, accustomed to having his way with just about everything and everybody, when a stroke left him with a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His mind and senses were left intact, but his body was paralyzed – except for one eyelid.

The movie starts as Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up in the hospital and learns the extent of his impairment. We stay there with him for the rest of the film, often seeing the hospital from his stationary-camera point of view, sharing his fantasies and memories, or hearing his dryly funny, unself-pitying commentary.

His words are taken from his book, which he calls “motionless travel notes.” Bauby dictated the book in the hospital, using an ingenious method devised by his speech therapist that let him spell words out by blinking his good eyelid. That method also let him communicate surprisingly well with his doctors and caregivers and with the friends and family members who had the patience to master it, making for a richer social life than you might expect.

Other than his eye, Bauby tells us, he has two things left: his imagination and his memory. Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give his fantasies and flashbacks the supper-real, emotionally charged feeling of a vivid dream.

The real world of this movie is also full of exquisite beauty. Bauby’s two therapists, the woman who takes his dictation for the book, and the mother of his three kids are all gorgeous young women, soulful and chic. Even his hospital room is picturesque, decorated with flowers that look like something from the pages of, well, Elle magazine. Schnabel filmed in the actual hospital where Bauby lived. The walls of his airy room are a lovely Mediterranean aqua, and there’s a long terrace where he likes to sit, overlooking the sea in a spot that looks, as he points out, like a movie set.

Yet even in this surprisingly humane and supportive atmosphere, assisted by what appears to be a respectful, responsive and caring staff, Bauby must cope with enormous frustration. Sharing one annoyance or indignity after another with our irritable hero, even the healthiest of viewers can begin to imagine how it must feel to be unable to perform the slightest physical act without assistance. Sometimes it’s a minor annoyance, like having the soccer game he’s watching switched off by a doctor just as a goal is about to be scored. Sometimes it’s a major dilemma, like having to ask the mother of his children, who’s still in love with him, to translate a charged conversation he needs to have with his lover. A Tom Jones-style fantasy sequence of Bauby sharing a seductive feast with one of his caregivers is a reminder that the simple pleasure of eating is lost to him, and it’s poignant to see Bauby propped up in his wheelchair on the beach, unable to touch or talk to his children as they play nearby.

In a way, what Bauby experiences is an exaggerated and accelerated version of the effects of a serious chronic disability or extreme old age, as Bauby’s elderly father (a stately Max von Sydow) points out. “You try using the stairs when you’re 92!” he says.

Johnny Depp was originally slotted to play Bauby (he gave up the part when it conflicted with his acting in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). It would have been interesting to see what he did with the part, but the puckishly charming Amalric makes it his own. The actor, who looks a little like a young Roman Polanski, captures both the charisma and the restless intelligence of the acid-tongued Bauby.

The rest of the cast -- which includes Schnabel’s wife, Marie-JoseĆ© Croze, as one of the therapists – is also first-rate. Together with Schnabel, Kaminski, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and the rest of the crew, they bring Bauby’s story vibrantly alive, celebrating the fragile beauty of life and the adaptability of the human mind.

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