Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The opening of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the most viscerally affecting and powerful acts of sustained empathy I can remember encountering in the cinema in quite a while. For what seems like an eternity — but was probably only about a half hour out of this nearly two-hour film — Schnabel's camera steadfastly maintains the first-person perspective of a man who has suffered a debilitating nerve disorder, paralyzing his entire body except for his left eye. The camera maintains the man's perspective without fail. What he sees appears on the screen. When he blinks, the screen goes momentarily dark. When his vision blurs or part of his eye clouds over, the image responds in kind. The effect is claustrophobic, almost suffocating, like the diving bell of the title, which becomes the man's metaphorical image for his condition, returning to it again and again over the course of the film, a frightening image of a man trapped underwater in a heavy diving helmet, screaming unheard. Schnabel's decision to submerge the viewer along with the film's protagonist is perhaps the only way to communicate the sensations attached to this plight, to provide a new way of looking at the world through another's eyes.

It's a stunningly empathetic vision, executed with a visual flair that's nearly as breathtaking as the story's content is bracing. Schnabel's roaming, insistent, blurring and refocusing camera inevitably calls to mind Stan Brakhage in this section, and especially Brakhage's hallucinatory Deus Ex, also a chronicle of a hospital stay. Beyond the thematic similarities, in both films the hospital-bound protagonist, unseen and embodied in the camera eye, lets his gaze wander over flowers, disembodied limbs of visitors, and near-abstracted surfaces blurred by hazy vision. Of course, the film doesn't maintain this stringent first-person perspective. Even in the opening half-hour, there are periodic cuts to scenes from memory or fragmentary dream-like images, and then the film switches to a more conventional third-person perspective, returning periodically to the protagonist's point of view for isolated scenes. The film remains extraordinarily close to this man and his altered experience of the world, even after it abandons seeing through his eye, but the rest of the film definitely approaches the material from a slightly more exterior perspective. This switch is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it might've been nearly impossible for Schnabel to sustain the first-person perspective at feature length, at least not without completely wearing out the audience. And yet, as claustrophobic and constricting as this section is, its formal rigor is somewhat missed in the rest of the film, which is still excellent, but not quite the towering achievement that is promised by this introduction. I can't help but wonder what the film might've been if Schnabel had chosen to extend this formal conceit to the entire narrative.

In any case, the man is Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a notorious playboy and ambitious writer, whose true account of this experience is the basis for Schnabel's film. Amalric, once he's visible in the second part of the film, gives a remarkable performance, conveying all through a single expressive eye, held wide open in stark contrast to the flaccid rest of his face. Schnabel, to his great credit, never allows the film to degenerate into the kind of weepy Oscar-bait that such extreme physical performances usually entail. The film is anchored by the introspective, wide-ranging, and even mordantly funny voiceover of Bauby, much of it taken directly from his book. This narration gives the film a cerebral gloss that in some ways leavens the film's tremendous emotional force, rendering it bearable and allowing the film to touch the head as well as the heart. Bauby's condition is a natural heartstring-tugger, so the pensive voiceover ensures that the film never descends into mere emotional schlock, instead carefully considering the repercussions of such physical limitations for perception, identity, the concept of life, and the human mind. Bauby's commentary considers how his condition has affected the way he sees, and even the way he thinks, as well as covering the expected reminiscences and recriminations from a lifetime of vigorous living and loving.

The paralyzed editor also provides surprising moments of wry humor, particularly in his dealings with the trio of beautiful young women who care for and accompany him in the hospital. There's Olatz López Garmendia, Schnabel's stunning real-life wife, as the physical therapist (and self-appointed religious counselor) Marie, who is introduced in a scene where she leans over Bauby's bed, and his eye is drawn to both her tantalizingly just-hidden breasts and the glittering cross dangling between them. She also tempts the immobilized patient by trying to teach him how to move his tongue, demonstrating it for him several times, prompting Bauby to mutter in his head, "not fair, not fair." There's also Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), his speech therapist, and Claude (Anne Consigny), the translator who helps Bauby to actually "write" a book by translating his eye-blinks into letters, painstakingly getting down his thoughts in this time-consuming manner. This trio of beautiful, inspiring women are Bauby's main contact points, but in many ways he seems inundated with women: there's also his former lover and the mother of his three children (Emmanuelle Seigner), the ex-girlfriend he remembers breaking up with after she made him purchase a glowing and blinking statue of the Madonna (Marina Hands), and the largely unseen Inès (Agathe de La Fontaine), his one true love who won't visit him because she doesn't want to see him this way. On one level, the film is about Bauby's relationships and enduring fascination with the women in his life, as well as Schnabel's equally powerful affinity for gorgeous women. Images of women, of their expressive faces and smiles and the casually exposed skin of dresses riding up, have an ethereal beauty in this film, as Bauby and Schnabel unite in a voyeuristic appreciation of the female face and form, even as these same women drive Bauby forward in much deeper and more meaningful ways than their physical surfaces.

In exploring the mindset and inner life of Bauby, Schnabel has constructed a film of awe-inspiring beauty and depth, a dazzling patchwork of images, ideas, and dreams stitched together from Bauby's writings. The one fault is the metaphor of the butterfly, a positive counterpoint to the diving helmet image that described Bauby's isolation in his own body. The butterfly represents, for Bauby, his ability to escape from his entrapment by means of imagination and memory, the twin capabilities of the human mind that are glorified here. The butterfly is a very tired metaphor for human freedom, although here it's presented in narration over a lovely abstract collage of superimposed imagery, and is mostly not returned to afterwards, as though Schnabel also understood that this uncharacteristic moment of triteness was a weak link in the writing's clear-eyed thinking about sensation and the mind. Otherwise, the film remains remarkably balanced in exploring the emotional and intellectual ramifications of Bauby's sensory state without manipulation or overt sentimentalizing. This is an incredibly powerful film, in which the union of aesthetics and subject is nearly perfect. Having seen Bauby's words visualized by the fragmentary beauty of Schnabel's hyper-stylized imagery, it's hard to imagine it being done any other way — certainly, any more traditional cinematic language could never do justice to the intrinsically internal nature of this story, which is primarily located in the brain of its protagonist rather than a physical world. This is a truly original and exciting film, one that maybe falls (just) short of a masterpiece, but nevertheless indicates a true master in the making.


DavidEhrenstein said...

It's a really lovely and imaginative movie -- free of "Triumph of the Human Spirit" crap.

reassurance said...

I would agree that the film is absolutely breathtaking for its first half hour or so, and once the film shifts into third-person, it certainly loses something. I think that's my biggest problem with the film (though I did like it quite a bit); it was as if Schnabel wasn't confident enough to express his entire film in that way.

Filmbo said...

I disagree that the film loses something when it breaks from the first-person camera. Since it already mixes together memory and imagination, why can't we see why Bauby is imagining, and why would it necessarily be limited to a first person narrative? And Bauby himself is stepping back and looking at himself objectively. I agree it would be harder for the film to be told entirely first person, but I'm not sure not breaking these rules would add anything.

And David, you're so right that it's not about the triumph crap, but then so many people who are seeing it and loving it are talking about it. It depresses me when people replace the point with something they think is the point.

Ed Howard said...

I have slightly mixed feelings about the switch myself. I love the film as it is, but I did feel a real sense of disappointment when Schnabel first decisively broke free of Bauby's perspective -- it took me a few scenes before I got used to the change and realized that the film was still in most ways as close as ever to Bauby's subjective experience.

The "triumph of the spirit" crap is definitely there, intrinsic in the story, for those inclined to find it anywhere. But Schnabel utterly ignores and deliberately downplays these aspects of the story, concentrating instead on the more cerebral and introspective elements. Anyone reading the film as if it's a typical "overcoming adversity" narrative is, I'd say, badly misreading it.