The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Who would have thought to make a film about a man who had a stroke that left him paralyzed, with only the ability to blink his left eye? What could you possibly make of that? I guess it takes an artist who sees films where you and I see only pathos. Julian Schnabel, the painter and sculptor, has made three films so far, and each one has been about an unexpected protagonist: "Basquiat," which he made after the graffiti artist had died; "Before Night Falls," also about a man who died, the Cuban gay poet Reynaldo Arenas, played beautifully by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem; and now another film about a man who died, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
"The Diving Bell" is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), the editor of the French fashion magazine "Elle." He was in his forties, very successful, the father of three children by a woman he'd never married, and then he gets a stroke that paralyzes his body but leaves his brain intact, except for the fact that he could only blink his left eye. And in another example of the greatness of French medicine - and you really should see "Sicko" to see what I mean - the doctors and therapists don't give up on him but find a way to let him use his brain. A speech therapist (Marie-Jozee Crose) brings him an alphabet board, with the letters ordered by their frequency of use. She will recite each letter, until he spots the one he wants; he will blink once for yes, and she will write down everything he says in this way. In conversation, he will blink once again for yes, twice for no.
And then, as you may have heard, he decides to write a memoir of his life, using this blinking means of speech. Schnabel has found a way to make all of this utterly enthralling; as she reads off the letters we find ourselves reading along with her. An interesting side note is that the film is of course in French, and French has a different order of letter frequency; as Crose reads them they take on a hypnotic sound that is very comforting to us, as it must have been to M. Bauby. And as we listen to his thoughts on the sound track, Schnabel takes us to those places. Bauby is imprisoned by his stroke, but he is also in a beautiful seaside rehabilitation center, where the staff will take him to the surf, to sit in his wheelchair on the beach, to visit with his children. And we also learn that he has not been a very great father or partner either; that is an overlooked part of Schnabel's genius.
Don't get me wrong; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is not an inspirational film, nor is it meant to be. It is a brilliant work of film as an art form, taking something that you and I would never have thought to do and making us feel absolutely committed to it. It is one of the best films of this year, or any year.