Julian Schnabel sees a different world than the rest of us. That was obvious from his paintings, “bold, confrontational” pieces of neo-expressionism, the critics raved as he rose to fame in the 1970s and `80s.
But something about that static work, painted plates on a canvas, left him dissatisfied.
“Painting, I can let people stumble around for a few hundred years until they figure out what you’re getting at,” he says, chuckling. “Film is an art form where you’re really conscious of your audience. They’re with you right there, if you do it right.”
He wanted that immediate connection, that interplay with the viewer. So he began making movies—“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls.” More acclaim followed.
But with his latest, the award-winning “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Schnabel says he was able for the first time to show the viewer how a painter sees the world. The film, the true story of a French magazine editor who found himself totally paralyzed, only able to see with one eye and yet a man who dictated a book about the interior life he led, forces the viewer to see what that trapped editor sees.
“You look in the mirror sometime,” Schnabel says. “`There’s nothing there,’ you think, `it’s a mirror.’ But if you really look at it, you see that there’s part of the wall behind you. There’s a fragment of this light, that window, that piece of furniture. If you had to draw what you saw, you’d see all these things, all sorts of images. People accept all that stuff that’s in that mirror as `nothing.’ “
He wanted to re-focus the viewer’s eyes on that “nothing,” to truly take it all in. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is “about observation, basically,” he says. “Seeing.”
Schnabel, 56, took on the daunting task of making a film from the point of view of a quadriplegic because, he says, “I have had a fear of death my entire life.” By putting himself in “the shoes” of Jean-Dominique Bauby, he could better understand death and art.
“The process of making this made me feel like if you’re conscious, and consciousness is life, then this state he was in helps you be prepared, in some way, to make the transition into death,” Schnabel says. “This (autobiography) that Bauby left is something we can all use, partake of, the way some people go to church and take a bite off that wafer and they have the body and the blood of Christ with that wine and a wafer. This man was not called Jean-Do (John Doe) for nothing. His death, his situation, is something we all partake of vis a vis the book he made. The book is, in essence, his body.”
The native Texan adds that he is “not a born-again Christian or anything, but I think that book and this film of that book is about all of us, not just Bauby. Everybody’s going to be in this situation, sooner or later, and he’s written a book that takes us there.”
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers is among those praising the film’s way of overcoming its innate claustrophobia with a cinematic “high-wire act,” balancing humor, flashbacks and detailed observation of Bauby’s field of vision. Schnabel brought his painter’s eye to the film’s main set, a hospital room. By “putting the camera where Bauby is”—paralyzed, in bed—Schnabel says, he had to focus only on the things Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric in the film, could see.
Others have tried to use a first-person camera to tell a film story before, having the camera take the point of view of one person, showing the viewer what that person sees. The 1947 Humphrey Bogart thriller “Dark Passage” famously begins with an extended first-person sequence. Schnabel jokes that others “didn’t stick with (the technique) long enough.” His non-traditional, non-film-school background led him, he thinks, to a grand storytelling discovery in using that technique so extensively in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
“Usually, when somebody talks to the camera, it stops the movie,” he says. “In this case, since everybody was talking to the camera, it was like a whole other movie. `Where’s that other person? Oh, I’m that other person!’ “
“It makes the movie seem closer to you. You’re not just watching it. It’s happening to you.
“That’s important for this movie because, again, this is not just his story. It is your story, our story, too.”
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