Three movies into his second career, painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel has staked out distinctive thematic territory: a place where art (and its inevitable concomitant, fame), marginalization and struggles-unto-mortality meet.
The shambling, impressionistic Basquiat, still my favorite of his films, dramatized the short, doomed artistic life of Schnabel's younger cohort in the '80s New York art scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who succumbed to mounting perils including drug addiction before his career took off. Before Night Falls, a larger, more structured work, chronicled the ordeals of ostracism and official persecution endured by gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas, who migrated to the U.S. before being felled by AIDS.
It was easy to sense that both of these films served Schnabel as a form of projected self-portraiture: The protagonists were artists, and he identified with their battles against prejudice, ill fortune and their own demons. But there was a difference: They were victims; he was, and remains, a victor—an artist who achieved success, riches and celebrity (in two disciplines no less) and didn't die doing it.
One could speculate forever on the complicated psychic ties that connect an artistic victor to his victim brother: Is the survivor's homage a generous and knowing tribute, or a weirdly conflicted monument built on buried strata of guilt, envy and self-pity? Could it be both at once?
Schnabel's films are serious and personal, no question about it, edged with a melancholy that is nowhere gloomy. Yet the subjects and milieus he has treated—art, drugs, exile, gays, AIDS, downtown bohemia, revolutionary Cuba—are fashionable enough to suggest an artist whose sense of the marketplace is as practiced as his directorial chops. Which leads to the inevitable question of whether he is truly good, or merely shrewd.
Schnabel's latest, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, resembles its predecessors in that it is a true-life biography of a man who attained a degree of posthumous artistic renown. It differs from them in that it takes place in France (and in French), and its protagonist is not an artist when the story begins.
The film's narrative core is elegantly simple. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), known to his friends as Jean-Do, is a successful editor of French Elle in his 40s when a stroke leaves him trapped in a rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." Literally imprisoned in his own body, he discovers he can see, hear and reason as always but can only move his left eye. Gradually, with the help of a therapist (Marie-Josée Croze), he learns to communicate by blinking in code. Still completely paralyzed, he manages to write the memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which goes on to become an international bestseller—and dies two days after it is published in Paris to rave reviews.
This may sound like a tale of spiritual striving and moral uplift, but Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood are canny enough not to play it that way. Their account focuses first on the sheer sensory affect and then on the mental calibrations and dogged will power that inform Bauby's ordeal.
The film's opening act involves the most elaborate use of subjective camera in recent memory. Everything is seen from Bauby's point of view. As we hear his voice musing in stupefied wonderment at his sudden new state of being, his eyes race desperately over the contours of his new environment, trying to make sense of the flickering lights and shadows and the concerned figures hovering over him.
This paroxysm of visual discovery and adjustment is not only dramatically involving—like Bauby, we must make sense of what we're seeing—it's also strangely beautiful. Janusz Kaminski's luminous camerawork is a major asset throughout the film, but here the cinematography almost is the film, offering a cascade of ocular impressions that, for my money, comprises Diving Bell's most compelling section.
It is roughly a half-hour before Bauby catches a glimpse of himself, and is horrified at the twisted figure and distorted face he beholds. Thereafter the film's visual narration gradually switches from first-person to third-person. Recurrently, Bauby's memory also gives us flashbacks to his life before the stroke, where we see his interactions with his longtime lover (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their kids, his mistress (Marina Hands) and his crusty father (Max Von Sydow).
Much of the film, however, concerns Bauby's learning to communicate and then to write using only his left eye. This is a slow, arduous and monotonous process, and the film doesn't stint in showing that. It takes a while for Jean-Do simply to get the gist of arriving at one letter via a certain number of eye-blinks. Then each word requires numerous repetitions of this routine. And in the course of the film we see him spell out many, many words. (For American viewers there's the added distraction of noticing the difference between the French letters and words being sounded out and the English translations appearing in the subtitles.)
No doubt some viewers will find all this involving, since there's a basic fascination to the process of learning, especially when it entails language (a familiar motif in French culture, from Rousseau to Truffaut's The Wild Child). Other viewers, though, will be forgiven for finding Jean-Do's education-by-eye-blink tiresome and boring.
My own reaction, during the film's long middle section, was to reflect on the extent to which The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an unlikely and recalcitrant subject for screen translation, since the material is inherently uncinematic. Yet even voicing that thought, I realize, leads me into the precincts of heresy.
When Schnabel's film premiered in New York and Los Angeles this past fall, it received torrents of critical praise that I found both astonishing and baffling. It is not a negligible film by any means, but seeing The New Yorker's David Denby hail it as the "reinvention of cinema"—only one of the extravagant laudations it received—left me wondering if we'd seen the same movie.
I spent several days discussing this with two friends who were also in the small cadre of dissenters on Diving Bell, and various reasons were bandied as to why so many critics would go bananas over such a middling movie. Among them: It's self-serious, arty looking and in French; it's the perfect weepie for middle-aged male writers (especially those struggling to finish a book); many critics feel like they also suffer from locked-in syndrome, especially as the holiday movie season looms; the film is part of a morose but established tradition going back at least to My Left Foot, a tradition that another dissenting critic ungraciously characterized as "disability porn."
One friend said something that stuck with me. He believes that one of the film's great attractions for some critics is that it's all surface, with little psychological or spiritual depth (and most of what's there must be supplied by the viewer). Just as big Hollywood movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider-Man are now built around fastidiously two-dimensional characters, offering the viewer distraction rather than emotional involvement, so do some current "art" films—the other great example this season is P.T. Anderson's preposterously overrated There Will Be Blood—depend upon characters that are flat or static, which spares viewers the challenging internal dialectic that real drama demands. What we're left with in both cases, in fact, is not drama but spectacle.
I see how this applies to The Diving Bell. Jean-Do is a self-involved boor before his stroke happens, and he's the same at the end. The changes he goes through are physical and situational, hardly more. We never get any sense of serious self-scrutiny on his part, much less the possibility of genuine transformation. His one sign of change is that he completes a book—which, in France, admittedly is the equivalent of achieving beatification. But you can teach a chimp to blink and write a book, no?
I wish I had read that book actually, because I have a feeling I would like it more than the movie. The title refers to Bauby's sense that while he was physically as constrained as if he were in a diving bell, mentally he felt he could move as freely as a butterfly. That's a wonderful premise, but one far easier to realize in print, I think. Cinema, with its relentless emphasis on the external, must inevitably unbalance the equation, privileging (and perhaps romanticizing) the diving bell while dealing only partially and prosaically with the butterfly. The resulting film may be passionate, ambitious and fashionable, as all of Schnabel's films have been. But that doesn't mean it is wholly satisfying.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens Friday in select theaters.