We rented Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and watched it a couple of days ago. Wow. The guy can make a movie. I’ve used “Basquiat” in the classroom to discuss issues of authorial identity (reportedly Schnabel made all the pseudo Basquiat paintings in the film) and cultural expectations about artists. I saw “Before Night Falls” a while back. And now this one. He’s getting better.
The film begins with an extended series of point of view shots establishing the world of the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who has suffered a horrible stroke which left him unable to speak or move. He is only able to blink. His mind is fully functional (we hear snippets of endearing, sometimes sarcastic internal dialogue throughout), but he is imprisoned in a useless body—the diving bell of the title. I found it remarkable that the merciless POV at the film’s beginning was so emotionally and conceptually successful. It so easily could have failed, slid off into crummy cliché. Instead we get confusion, helplessness, fear, impotence, the internal voice silently commanding a doctor to stop while we see the lids of a bad eye sewn together – see the procedure from inside.
Bauby’s therapists determine that he can communicate by blinking – once for yes, twice for no – and set up an alphabet system (the most common letters earlier than the less common in the series) that enables him to dictate words, sentences, and eventually a book. Before his disaster, Bauby was editor of French Elle, and not exactly a nice guy in his relationships with women. As he dictates to an amanuensis provided by his publisher, we see her affection for him develop. It’s not exactly a seduction, but there is a kind of love between them.
Schnabel did a wonderful job telling the story. What could have easily devolved into a maudlin tale of a pitiful victim, or (perhaps worse) some inspirational bit of instruction about coping with life’s unkind blows, instead approached its subject with unflinching attention and care.
I never had much love for Schnabel’s paintings. But this film convinced me that he really is a great artist.