"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (****)
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the result of uncommon cinematic vision, in this case springing from the mind of filmmaker Julian Schnabel. As divisive a persona as his techniques could be construed, Schnabel is a consummate artist striving for vastly different things behind the camera than any of his contemporaries. In his latest effort, the director has created a menagerie that becomes that rare example of a film less impressive in the sum of its parts than it is in the analysis of each working component. It is masterful in ways it seems critical analysis has not yet considered.
Matthieu Amalric stars as Jean-Dominque Bauby, the publisher of “Elle” magazine who suffered a sudden stroke in 1995 that rendered him paralyzed but for one eye. Left with little more than his memories and his imagination, Bauby capitalized on a lingering book deal he had signed with a publisher and set about writing an autobiography. The account was dictated via a system in which he would blink his eye to corresponding letters of the alphabet, ultimately telling his tale from the prison of an immovable body – his “diving bell.” He lived to see the book’s publication before passing away a mere ten days later.
A guy blinking his life story – only Julian Schnabel could find something cinematic about that. And indeed he does.
Much of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is visually conveyed in a first person perspective that is equal parts claustrophobic and fascinating. While the effect instills a certain empathy in the viewer, it also allows for insight as Bauby’s thoughts are spoken by Amalric as if reverberating inside the character’s mind. It is also through this brazen panache that cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is given room to really experiment aside from his wonderful lighting in the more traditional sequences. I notice Gerard did not include Kaminski at all in his recent “Tech Support” column spotlighting the DPs of the season. That might prove a mistake as Kaminski’s work is essential to the artistry of the film.
Amalric is accompanied on screen by “Munich” co-star Marie-Josée Croze, as Henriette, one of Bauby’s nurses who concocts the dictation system. Emmanuelle Seigner is Céline, the mother of Bauby’s three children, and together with Croze, she offers a delicate feminine balance for Bauby’s internal, macho persona. But the real specter of delicacy is inherent in a two-scene performance by Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father, Papinou.
I don’t think I’ve seen a relationship so clearly and beautifully rendered in such a small amount of time in a long while. An initial encounter told in flashback with Bauby giving his father a shave – the last time he saw him before the stroke – provides deep context for a later encounter over the phone, during which Papinou can’t handle the pain of speaking to a son he knows cannot respond. “I miss you,” he tells Bauby, tears streaming down his eyes, sick with confusion. It’s one of the more powerful scenes of the year in the amount of emotion it generates, and given Amalric has little to do other than sit and stare at the telephone, the task is completely in Sydow’s hands. It could be affecting enough to generate a fair share of supporting actor votes come January.
With all this in mind, there is a living, beating heart beneath the surface of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” that Schnabel seems paradoxically intent on containing as much as possible. Any time the viewer feels the blissful serenade of the film’s various episodic segments and musical interludes, the director cuts sharply away and to the next chapter, so to speak, as if he is unwilling to cajole or, like so many of Bauby’s fantasies, allow himself to stray from what is his subject’s unflinching predicament. It’s a form of honesty one has to appreciate when the risk of pandering is so prevalent.
Regarding the awards season, I have to say that Miramax seems to be four-square behind this film in the Oscar department – good. There is no question that the studio’s other major hopeful, “No Country for Old Men,” is a cold and empty experience, regardless of artistic merit captured here and there that might appeal to this branch or that. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” however, is a piece of work that actually does something with its unavoidable chill-factor. It’s a smart, precise piece of filmmaking that knows how to make the most of an entirely un-cinematic situation. It also generates a genuine emotional response that will surely resonate with anyone who fears unfinished business with their loved ones. And who doesn’t cower at the potential regret of tomorrow in the face of taking today for granted?