November 11, 2008 – 4:26 am

In The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, director Julian Schnabel creates a cinema of daring and imagination, even if his lead character cannot move a single muscle in his entire body, with the exception of his left eye. Critic After Dark Noel Vera reviews.

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is based on a book by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do, as friends call him) who suffered a stroke, fell into a coma for 20 days, and woke up with a rare condition, “locked-in syndrome.” He could think, smell, hear (faintly), see, but he couldn’t move a single muscle in his entire body with one exception - his left eye.

Director Julian Schnabel tackles head-on the challenge which one filmmaker or another has dreamed of, telling a story almost exclusively through a single point of view (Orson Welles planned to film Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness this way; Robert Montgomery actually succeeded with Lady in the Lake [1947], even if the results aren’t always compelling). Mr. Schnabel succeeds, perhaps not completely, but more than any previous filmmaker I can think of, with the first 40 minutes almost exclusively told through Mr. Bauby’s left eye (exceptions include a brief flashback, and a harrowing sequence where Mr. Bauby’s immobile right eye is being “occluded”).

Mr. Welles’ and Mr. Montgomery’s problem, of course, was in conceiving the single point of view as an uninterrupted shot (with all its accompanying technical and dramatic difficulties). We know of course that this isn’t so - our view is constantly interrupted by eyeblinks and sudden shifts in attention (the eye moving too fast for images to register clearly); it’s obscured by eyelashes, momentary blurring, even tears.

Mr. Schnabel (with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) painstakingly recreates each of these effects with cinematic analogues, using jump cuts (for blinks), flickering shadows (for lashes), out-of-focus lensing and smeared imagery for blurring and tears. Then there are subtler effects, like cutting off the heads and shoulders of people talking to Mr. Bauby, to underscore the fact that his view of the world comes entirely from that one eye, and that the eye is unable to move.

But Mr. Bauby’s eye is only half his capability to apprehend and comprehend the world; the other half is his inner eye, which surveys the double realm of memory and imagination. Mr. Schnabel conceives of memory as looking like old film footage, with handheld camerawork and the slightly washed-out colors of old Super 8; imagination is granted an altogether different look, with gliding camera moves (suggesting a freedom he doesn’t have), opulent colors (suggesting a voluptuousness he can’t feel), crystal clarity, and the occasional, defiantly surreal image (a wheelchaired Mr. Bauby on a wooden platform standing in the middle of an ocean; the wind whipping a woman’s hair into a frenzy of seething serpents; Empress Eugenie running and Nijinsky leaping through the corridors of the hundreds of years old hospital).

Perhaps the single most inspiring shot is that of a gigantic iceberg stretching from one side of the screen to the other in all its detailed majesty, collapsing slowly into the ocean; by film’s end the process is reversed, and the shards of ice leap up from the boiling seawater to reform, jigsaw-puzzlelike, back into the glacier - a more bravura image of reversal, renewal, redemption would be difficult to find in recent cinema.

Audio at the very least makes up half of Mr. Schnabel’s arsenal. When people talk to Mr. Bauby, we hear them through the film’s standard stereo track, complete with ambient outdoor or indoor sounds; when we hear Mr. Bauby talking to himself it’s as if he speaks in a locked room, a small one at that - we can sense the room’s size (or lack of) through the voice’s reverberations (or lack of).

The soundtrack, which includes Bach and pop standards like Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” and Tom Waits’ “All the World is Green,” betrays Mr. Schnabel’s film-literate orientation (I wouldn’t know about the real-life Mr. Bauby). He includes excerpts from the lush piano score of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and from the score of Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) - in particular the piercingly beautiful passage when Doinel rides the police van through the night streets of Paris, and the city never looked more magical or un-reachable (no accident, I suspect, that the excerpt was taken from Doinel’s last night before incarceration).

At one point he calls his favorite spot in the hospital - an open terrace looking out on a small suburban town - his Cinecitta, after the famed Roman studio, and indeed there’s something dais-like about his vantage point, something of the artificially miniaturized studio set about the nearby town.

The effect of Mr. Bauby speaking out to correct or contradict or protest the images fed to him by his eye can at times be humorous (as when a hospital staff turns off the soccer game he’s watching) or heartrending (as when he begs them to leave his right eye alone). It’s the helplessness, you imagine, of Montresor rattling his bells inside his walled-in tomb, in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”; it’s the helplessness and isolation we all feel at one time or another, that we somehow can’t fully engage the outside world in the manner we’d prefer, that the universe is a complex and hostile and unknowable place, that we somehow can’t connect with one another, no matter how hard we try.

Of course, Mr. Bauby could only appreciate what he has - or had - just when he’s lost them; he seems to connect best with other people, especially the mother of his children Celine (Emmanuelle Signer) only when that connection is at its most physically challenging. It’s not the medium that matters, Mr. Schnabel seems to tell us, but the content, and the passion with which one wants to communicate said content.

Or is it as simple as all that? Perhaps Mr. Schnabel means to say that medium does matter, that it’s the daunting nature of the challenge that forces Mr. Bauby to reach out and “touch” someone. One only has to sit down and see the film, appreciate how natural Mr. Schnabel’s effects can be, how effortlessly he lets us slip - that’s the proper word, I think - into Mr. Bauby’s shoes (diving suit, if you like), show us what Mr. Bauby’s thinking, what he’s up against, and what, most of all, is at stake.

If the film has any power, if it maintains such a masterful grip on our emotions and imagination, that may be because Mr. Bauby’s situation is really ours (considerably exaggerated), and his story, realized through Mr. Schnabel’s tremendous filmmaking capabilities, is our own - we hear him speak for us in his locked-away voice, watch him look for us with fear and wonder at a strange, at times hostile world using his restlessly roving eye. Allow me to put it on record, say it aloud as plainly as I can: Le Scaphandre et le papillon is easily the best film of 2007 and Julian Schnabel, with his slim portfolio of films, arguably the finest filmmaker working at the moment.

Note: First published in Businessworld, October 24-25, 2008. You can also email Noel Vera at [email protected].

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