When you first hear the storyline for Julian Schnabel’s brilliant new French language biopic, some cinematic formulas immediately come to mind: youthful editor of a Parisian magazine, struck down in his prime by a medical condition that leaves him paralyzed (or better yet, “locked in”); only able to communicate through the blinking of his left eye, he overcomes adversity and lives to write a tell-all tome about his life ‘submerged’ in a quasi-catatonic state. Indeed, there’s a dour, disease-of-the-week feel to the description, an inevitable cliché of “conquering hardship” that makes any attempt at art seem specious at best. And yet The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just that - a sensational cinematic canvas created by a man who understands the inherent beauty in form, function, and now filmmaking.
Schnabel, a painter as well as director, has always gravitated toward stories about the creative. His first film, Basquiat, focused on the enigmatic New York graffiti artist, while Before Night Falls found Javier Bardem channeling Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. Diving Bell is inspired by the book of the same name, a volume written by former journalist and Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby detailing his mental and medical travails after suffering a cerebrovascular incident (read: stroke) that left him literally unable to move. Using a unique visual approach to telling the story, and getting deeper inside a man and his illness than previous films of this nature, Schnabel shows that perception is just as important as process. While most narrative would focus on the day to day hurdles of being hospitalized, Diving Bell goes under and over, between and around said situation.
This is a film that wants its audience to really get the feel of Bauby’s plight - at least initially. For the first 30 minutes, Schnabel employs a shaky, marginally focused first person POV, letting us see what our patient sees, and letting us listen to the running commentary in his head. One of the most devastating things that happened to Bauby was the loss of physical acumen coupled with the retention of all his mental faculties. There was still a vital, intelligent, and complicated man inside the motionless system of organs and secretions, someone who truly ate up life and all its passions. But Bauby was no saint, and Schnabel is wise to keep him multifaceted. Thanks to flashbacks used as internal starting gates for our story, we see a womanizing cheat, a mediocre father, an absentee son, and a belligerent boss. It’s all important to Diving Bell‘s overall power. Without such a personality, Bauby would be another valiant hero in a hospital gown.
But this is not what Schnabel is after. Like a celluloid illustration of the old phrase “life’s what you make it”, The Diving Bell and Butterfly tries to argue that physical limits do not mean the end of all existence. While it seems like a simple enough statement, the two examples we see make a very strong, very substantive case. Bauby’s aging father, played with exceptional grace and gravitas by Max Von Sydow, has gotten to the point where he can no longer easily maneuver about his home. He complains of the corporeal restrictions, of how age and his failing limbs have condemned him to only a small percentage of his previous mobility. Yet the minute he learns of his son’s horrible fate, the self-pity he felt switches to love - love for what he has, love for his child’s plight, love that he has a chance to talk to him one last time. It’s a devastating moment in the movie, an epiphany which guides us through the rest of the revelations.
Most of the narrative is taken up with Bauby learning the ropes of his new reality. We get painstaking sequences where nurses and speech therapists work with him to establish the alphabet/blink system he uses to communicate. Schnabel is good about not overplaying this material. It could grow tedious very easily. But thanks to the concept of communication intrinsic in the exchanges (we can hear what Bauby is thinking - the staff cannot) and the misunderstandings that result, there is significant suspense here. Yet this is not just a film “locked in” to a Who’s Life Is It Anyway? directive. Thanks to some gorgeous fantasy sequences (most revolving around the title imagery) and a near flawless flair for his compositions, Schnabel transcends the traps innate in such a story.
Equally important is the acting, and French star Mathieu Amalric is terrific as Bauby. Compelling both in and out of his condition, we get a real sense of humanity hindered. During the flashbacks, Amalric is all swagger and strength. He comes across as a man of determination, even when faced with situations that tend to undermine his machismo. The love story side of Diving Bell is probably the most underdeveloped, and that’s perhaps the fault of the source material. We learn of a girlfriend, someone so selfish that she can’t bear to see her man in such a helpless state. Her phone conversation with Bauby is so demoralizing, so dark in its intentions and significance that we can’t quite fathom how this couple ever got along outside of bed.
Yet the real star here is Schnabel. He takes great risks, from the opening gimmickry to the last act foreshadowing of his character’s fate. There are hints throughout that Bauby will never recover (we get a few doctors proclaiming breakthroughs, and therapy does have him responding, if only in incremental amounts), and by this time in the film’s theatrical run, a quick glimpse at IMDb or any other online information source will give away the ending. But this is not the saddest way the story could end. There is a sense of release in the way Schnabel sets up the finale, a way of proving that one last act of expression is all a person needs in this world. He or she just has to hope that someone is around to take down their words and share them with the rest of the world.
As awards season winds down and the usual suspects walk away with various symbolic statuettes, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems destined to be an amiable afterthought, a well respected work that ends up seated second behind more popular (or populist) choices. Yet this is the kind of movie that will endure, that will reconfigure the way such subject matter is dealt with, as well as rewriting the rules on how to successfully visualize the plight of people physically restrained but mentally strong. As with all art, it is difficult and demanding, requiring patience, attention, and the shedding of unimportant preconceptions. Julian Schnabel understands this all too well. Perhaps that’s why everything he tries in this film succeeds. Perhaps this is why The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is such an inspiration experience.