Never mind how you feel about Julian Schnabel the flamboyant bon vivant, as a filmmaker he’s one of the most inventive and captivating artists around. Each of his images is full of fire and feeling, as if the human heart had found its visual equivalent, and Schnabel’s third feature The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finds the artist in brilliant form. Beyond the level of the story, which is itself a stirring adaptation by Ronald Harwood of the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominique Bouby, one can derive a great deal of the Diving Bell’s emotional power through the nourishing flow of its lovely, powerful imagery.
Bouby was the editor of the French edition of Elle magazine in the mid-90s, living the high life, complete with a covertible sports car, a beautiful girlfriend, and three doting children, when he was struck down by a stroke that left him completely paralyzed save for his left eye. In the movie, Bouby is played by the always-appealing Mathew Amalric. Thankfully, Amalric keeps his performance dialed down, never flying off the handle into needless theatrics, something that, in less talented hands, this role could easily have devolved into. Trapped inside his own body, his senses intact — a phenomenon called “Locked-In Syndrome” — peering out at the world through the porthole of a single eye, it’s no wonder that Bouby likened the experience to being dropped into the ocean depths in the diving suit of the film’s (and Bouby’s book’s) title.
He spends his days in his hospital bed, tended to by neurologists and therapists, feeling hardly more than a vegetable. But here’s the good news (or the bad news depending on how you see it): the women who care for him are all beautiful, and devote their heart and soul to his care. These include his therapist Henriette (Marie-Josèe Croze) who teaches Bouby how to communicate by “blinking out” letters to form words; Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) with whom he had his children, who still carries a torch for him; and, finally, Claude (Anne Consigny), his scribe who takes down, one letter at a time, the book that Bouby writes in the course of the movie that describes his illness, the often terrifying existential challenges he had to surmount, and the spiritual strength he had to find to survive. The fact that Bouby’s world is populated by women could be read as a juvenile male chauvinist fantasy, but, really, these women represent not only Bouby’s salvation, but his ultimate punishment. Because he can neither act on his amorous feelings, nor, in the case of Céline, fully make amends for his shameful past behavior.
What sets Bouby free, in a sense, is his book, his butterfly. And in the slow, painstaking process of writing it, with Claude’s help, he’s able to rise out of the locked-in chamber of his body and express an entire universe of thoughts, feelings, yearings. These passages provide Schnabel with some of Diving Bell’s flights of fancy as when Bouby imagines lavish fantasies with his women, trips back in time to the corridors of his hospital during the Napoleonic days, and remembers vivid memories of his life pre-illness. It’s consistently engrossing filmmaking, but the most haunting sections are those that keep to Bouby’s optical point-of-view so we see the world, in all the fogginess and restrictiveness of his crippled vision. It’s a tactic that could have severely limited the expressiveness of the film, but not only does it carry the film visually but it delivers its most profound moments. When, in a the murky light of a hospital room, doctors hover over the screen, intently staring at the camera — the viewer now as Bouby — or when others stare with pained expressions directly at you, Schnabel and the eminent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski strikingly convey Bouby’s physical and moral plight. He’s reduced to nothing — just an eye — even though his voiceover tells us just how urgently he wishes to express himself, clawing at the walls of his soul to communicate to his family, friends, doctors. And when, after his book’s publication, Bouby’s mind begins to fail, the camera and soundtrack find ways to express that too, and with startling effectiveness.
Each of Diving Bell’s compositions is rendered with an impassioned sense of craft and texture such that they could’ve sprung only from the mind of a painter (which Schnabel is) or a painterly filmmaker. Perhaps it’s because Schnabel comes from painting that his narration and filmmaking seem so fresh, even audacious in how they try to capture the subject’s inner experience. Out of hand, Schnabel breaks conventional bonds of subjective narration, pulling to a “wider,” more objective view if he can heighten the resonance of any given scene, jumping points-of-view according to the needs of the moment. Is there a pattern to all this, I wondered? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter, because, as a viewer, the style feels utterly organic, totally sure of itself, rigorous yet unforced, always giving the sense that this is not only the best way, but the only way, to tell this particular story. And that’s high praise indeed.
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Ronald Harwood
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josèe Croze, Anne Consigny, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands, Max von Sydow, Isaach De Bankolé, Emma de Caunes