Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel)

Some critics I greatly respect have balked at this film's reliance (over-reliance in their eyes) of subjective camera. They say it's gratuitous, show-offy, sub-Brakhage noodling, and the like. But for me, this story doesn't work half as well without it, especially without Schnabel's bold gambit of starting out the film with over half an hour seen almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Matthieu Amalric). For one thing, we're not dealing with a familiar ailment or disability here- were he merely blind or deaf or a paraplegic, we would have had some frame of reference handy. But given the severity and rareness of "locked-in" syndrome, I think it's of paramount importance (especially for the story he's telling) that Schnabel really establish the harsh realities of Bauby's life. So for more than half an hour, we see what Jean-Do sees- occasionally we escape with him into his dreams or his imagination, but mostly we're trapped in that bed with him, one good eye darting about the room tentatively, trying to make sense of it all. And once we finally see Bauby in earnest, we truly understand the situation he's in, so he's not simply a pathetic figure on a bed, but one who we know full well has a brain firing on all cylinders even as his body has almost entirely betrayed him (how is it that Amalric's performance hasn't gotten more awards buzz? Sure, he mostly acts with his eye, but it says a ton, and his natural Amalric-ness suits the part perfectly in a way Schnabel's original intended star, Johnny Depp, wouldn't have.) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is in many ways a movie about seeing, not just the things Jean-Do sees but also the way he's seen by others. His wife's mother instinct kicks in, his mistress refuses to visit because she doesn't want to remember him that way, his father wants to see him but can't. Sometimes the different perspectives on Jean-Do are at cross-purposes, especially in a great scene involving the bedridden Bauby, his speech therapist, and two telephone installers (it's almost certainly a future Movie Moment). But even more than asking us to empathize with Bauby and his plight, Schnabel's insistence on subjectivity is very much in keeping with his directing style. All three of his fiction films to date have been based on true stories of artists or creative people, and Schnabel, for the most part, allows his subjects, and the work they did, to dictate the style of the film. In doing so, he refuses to adhere to the standard biopic story arc, especially in Diving Bell, in which we only get a handful of scattered memories. He also dispenses with a lot of the psychoanalysis we tend to see in films like this. For example, I love that we really never find out why Jean-Do wants to write a book- does he think he's got something to say? Is he just looking for something to do? Does he want a purpose, something to keep him going? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is being sold as an inspirational true-life story of triumph over adversity, but it's actually more about the difficulty of survival, and Schnabel is to be commended from not trying to sugar-coat the realities of Jean-Do's plight (for example, the last memory we share with him before his death is the stroke that put him in a coma- hardly an up note to send the audience home on). As a filmmaker, Schnabel's talent may not be especially broad, but it's deep, and that too should be treasured. Rating: 8 out of 10.

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