Film

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Matt Mazur

Diving Bell feels like another world and visually, it looks like no other film.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Emma de Caunes, Max Von Sydow, Isaach De Bankolé, Patrick Chesnais
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Mirimax
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2008-02-08 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-11-30 (Limited release)

From PopMatters' coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2007.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

From the opening scene (created personally by director, Julian Schnabel, a renowned artist) of antique x-rays to the scene immediately following (jaw-droppingly photographed by Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski) immediately following, where “Jean-Do” (an astonishing Mathieu Amalric) awakens from a three week long coma (curiously, the second of the festival) –- only to think that nothing is wrong, the director and the technicians are able to transport the audience into another world. This is the kind of thing that I personally love about film; the ability to really connect and experience someone else’s life, visually and emotionally. Schnabel and crew miraculously do this in the first two minutes of the movie. Diving Bell feels like another world and visually, it looks like no other film.

It takes a solid 15 minutes or so to become fully oriented to the film’s pioneering visual style, likely a deliberate move on the filmmaker’s part to get us to empathize with the man’s predicament. Characters move up to the camera, getting close to Jean-Do’s face to talk to him, but essentially, they are talking directly to us.

In Jean-Do’s mind, he is still OK. We experience his thoughts through Amalric’s narration as if nothing major has happened, but then are dealt a devastating blow as the doctor’s inform him of his condition. They assure him everything will be fine. It is a strikingly filmed opening montage, especially when Jean-Do comes to the realization that he can no longer speak or move, and that no one can hear the inner monologue happening exclusively in his head.

The hard truth is that Jean-Do is paralyzed from head to toe and will never speak again. “It’s just one of those things," says a callous doctor, at a loss for words while explaining his condition. This randomness echoes as images from the man’s childhood, and his mind's eye come crashing all around him with a fragmented urgency; a point of view which he referred to as “the butterfly”.

Henriette (an incandescent Marie-Josee Croze) is Jean-Do’s speech therapist, who calls him “the most important job she’s ever had”. She gets him to learn the blinking code (first a simple “one blink” for “yes”, two for “no”), and makes him answer inane questions (which the narration hilariously skewers, unbeknownst to her). He flashes back to his life as a fashion director for the magazine.

After such a sweet recollection, we are confronted with more ugly truth: Jean-Do’s right eye must be sewn shut to prevent the cornea from being destroyed. Since the point of view the audience experiences is lived directly from the man’s eye line, we too get a birds-eye view of an eye being closed forever, and it is shocking. Everything is mercilessly taken away from this once-successful man.

The dedicated Henriette begins to teach him a more advanced version of the blinking code, this time the alphabet, through a board that is set up by frequency of letter usage. In a scene where she has a breakthrough with him, thrilled at the prospect of communication with the man; she ends up not getting the kind of responses she had hoped for -- Jean-Do wants to die. In a lush scene on the beach (where the hospital is located in France), she convinces him that there is still purpose in life. It’s a very tricky speech; one that could have been contrived or sappy, but Croze underplays it with supreme elegance.

The unpredictability of the accident is mirrored in the unpredictability of the imagery in Jean-Do’s mind. A glacier dissolving and crumbling into the sea, a sumptuous green valley, a flower being pollinated; these seemingly unrelated shots all figure in prominently with the poetry of the man recalling his life (and the poetry of the Oscar winning scripter for The Pianist Ronald Harwood). He tells us that some of it is real and some of it is made up, but it keeps him alive. “I can imagine anyone, anywhere”, he says as more odd pictures are displayed onscreen.

He imagines a life that is not really his own, but that of Marlon Brando; until we finally get a chance to see what his life was like when he wasn’t strapped to a chair. At this point, the point of view changes once again, and Jean-Do becomes a character in his own story. He begins to dictate his memoirs to a nurse, feeding her poetic ruminations on the life he once led, and freeing himself of past shackles in the process. He recalls, in touching fashion, a day with his 92-year-old father (a brilliant Max Von Sydow), where the men talk about living to be old; then there is a telephone scene between the two men that had many audience members reaching for the Kleenex.

Amalric is able to convey more pathos with one eye (and his voice in the narration) than most actors can do with their entire body. With this performance (and solid work in the under-seen Kings and Queen), the actor proves to be one of the boldest, most talented working. With his privacy stripped, completely dependent on others for everything, and everything taken away from him, Amalric’s Jean-Do cleverly figures out a way to become expressive once again, and it is genuinely beautiful and heart breaking to witness not only the death of a man, but also his artistic rebirth that gives him grace in the end.

The director is particularly adept at putting all of these pieces of film together like an assertive artist with a distinct vision. The film plays out like a painting in many scenes -- a smattering of soft blue here, a touch of fleshy pink there; and it all comes together bathed in a golden halo of sunlight. This is more special than the hundreds of other run-of-the-mill bio films that have been produced ad nauseum over the last few years. Schnabel continues to innovate, and this is hands down his best film.

Schnabel’s previous two efforts (Basquiat and Before Night Falls), both highlighted the true-life stories of creative types (one a painter, the other a poet) who have to overcome insurmountable odds to release their demons and turn their visions into art (it is rumored that Schnabel’s next adaptation will continue along these artistic lines with an adaptation of The Lonely Doll with Naomi Watts and Jessica Lange). These films are all tied together with the thread of art and what it means to be or to become a true artist, and each has Schnabel’s distinct stamp of personal artistry on it.

The final deluge of choppy imagery, as Jean-Do lay dying, and is visited for the final time by his loved ones, is some of the most haunting, beautiful photography I have seen this year and I will carry them with me for a long, long time. I don’t think a director (other than maybe Ingmar Bergman) has ever so eloquently captured the personal experience of dying as Schnabel has here. “I wanted this film to be a tool”, said Schnabel. “Like his book, a self-help device that can help you handle your own death. That’s what I was hoping for and that’s why I did it.”

He takes us right up to the end, through the fear and through the acceptance. Even though Jean-Do was totally immobile and survived much longer than anyone expected, it is still tragic to learn that he died only 10 days after his book was published.

10

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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