Friday, February 1, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Taking Flight

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for nudity, sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.08

The blurry, eye-blinking, where-am-I point of view scene has been a cinema cliché for decades, as countless directors have put us briefly into a protagonist's head while s/he struggles to consciousness.
Here's the moment we spend the entire film waiting to see: Claude (Anne
Consigny) holds the completed book that she and Jean-Dominique Bauby
(Mathieu Amalric) have spent painstaking months to "dictate" and transcribe.

The next image is equally inevitable: the gradually sharpening close-up of a smiling lover, a worried doctor or a smirking villain. Then standard movie technique resumes, and we're once again in the land of multiple cameras and standard establishing shots.

Not for director Julian Schnabel.

He opens his new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with just such a sequence, as Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric, perhaps remembered as the French information broker in Munich) battles for awareness after having been in a three-week coma. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — a two-time Academy Award winner, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan — metaphorically places his camera inside Bauby's skull; we therefore share the man's disorientation as doctors, nurses and orderlies swim in and out of focus.

But it doesn't stop: Schnabel maintains this harrowing point of view, trapping us within Bauby's head just as he was, in reality, fully cognizant while being entombed within his own body.

This is a true story, and far more faithful to actual fact than most films making that claim these days. Bauby was a 43-year-old author and editor of the leading French magazine, Elle, when he was felled by a massive stroke. All at once, his exciting lifestyle — devoted father to adoring children, loving son to his own aging father, new boyfriend to a sensuous young woman quite typical of his glamorous world — came to an abrupt halt.

Bauby hit one of Fate's cruelest jackpots: He recovered consciousness to learn that he was victimized by an extremely rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." Almost completely paralyzed, he nonetheless quickly regained his sensibilities but had no way of caring for himself, and almost no way of communicating with the world outside his own thoughts.

He could flutter his left eyelid. That was it.

And yet Bauby refused to surrender to despair, choosing instead to plunge into a new writing project, utilizing a voice — a heightened sense of awareness — that articulated the degree to which people take life's daily miracles for granted. Bauby wrote an entire memoir via a painstaking, silent means of dictation: one single letter at a time.

He first memorized the sentences he wished to write in his head. Then, utilizing an alphabet card devised by his speech therapist, he'd wait patiently while somebody read the letters aloud, blinking when the correct letter was spoken ... over and over and over. Utilizing this grindingly slow method, Bauby spent 14 months "dictating" a book while staying in Room 119 of the Berck Maritime Hospital in Pas De Calais, France.

Schnabel catches it all: the initial confusion and terror, the brief flirtation with a quite reasonable desire to end it all, and the eventual epiphany that results when Bauby realizes that he can escape his confinement — which he likens to being trapped within a diving bell (suit) deep in the ocean — by utilizing what he calls his "butterfly" and its twin wings of memory and imagination.

Getting that far takes awhile, and Schnabel is merciless; the film's entire first act is presented from the same limiting point of view, as Bauby tries to focus on people, food, a distant TV screen or his own body. The constricted viewpoint is terrifying, particularly when Bauby believes that he's responding to questions — we hear Amalric in voice-over — but gradually realizes that he's "speaking" only in his mind.

Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood also aren't above gallows humor; we can't help laughing at the discovery that some French doctors can be just as condescendingly useless as some of their American counterparts, when it comes to reflexive suggestions that Bauby will be "fine." What pompous, useless jerks.

The worst is yet to come: Although able to see from both eyes when he first recovers consciousness, Bauby's right eye doesn't function properly. The decision is made to sew it closed, and Schnabel is brutal in this sequence, allowing us — looking through Bauby's eye — to see each stitch further reduce his already shockingly tiny window to the world.

Assuming this sequence doesn't send you shrieking from the theater, the rest of the story, thank God, isn't nearly as hard to experience.

Eventually, as Bauby becomes more practiced at compensating, Schnabel similarly expands his frames of reference to standard two-shots. We then see Bauby as everybody else sees him, and Amalric — finally on camera — does an amazing job of acting from this point forward. He conveys everything from misery to mordant delight with his stroke-drooped mouth and remaining eye, somewhat enlarged behind a special lens, so that others can better glimpse its tiniest movements.

The constricting walls of his hospital room evaporate more frequently, as we share both Bauby's memories and his occasional flights of fancy. This is a decidedly French story, and Bauby retains his sensual side; he cannot help viewing his female companions for their erotic potential, desperately trying — and inevitably failing — to catch a glimpse beneath a fluttering skirt. We begin to wish that a sudden breeze could enter the room and give this poor man the view he so desperately wants.

Via such flashbacks, we gain a better sense of Bauby's previous life, starting with the mother of his children — Emmanuelle Seigner, as Celine — whom he rather brutally insists, at one point, is not his wife. But despite the rather cruel way in which she has been used, Celine faithfully remains at Bauby's side ... whereas the new "love of his life" (Agathe de la Fontaine, as Inés) can't bring herself to visit even once.

Seigner's best scene comes when Inés finally, at least, manages to call Bauby on the phone. It's a monstrous situation, because Celine is the only other person in the room, and therefore trapped into serving as interpreter for a woman she clearly loathes. (One hopes this is movie-making melodrama, and not something that actually took place.) And here's the delicious subtlety of how this scene is staged: Despite all her other reasons for hating this "other woman," we gradually realizes that Celine is the most furious because Inés is incapable of fulfilling Bauby's desire to see her.

It's a marvelous scene, and Seigner handles it flawlessly.

Strong as it is, though, this scene takes second place to a flashback with Bauby's father, played by the incomparable Max von Sydow. The older man has become infirm; Bauby gently shaves him as the two men simply chat. And yet the powerful emotions present — mutual love, devotion and admiration — are palpable to an astonishing degree.

Anne Consigny has a telling role as Claude, the "secretary" who faithfully helps deliver Bauby's book onto the printed page. Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia play Henriette and Marie, respectively, the therapists who help Bauby learn how to communicate.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly belongs in the company of films such as The Elephant Man and Mask: similarly factual sagas about individuals who struggled heroically for self-expression despite limitations that would make most people yield to despair. Absent the proper directorial tone, such tales can be relentlessly depressing; indeed, David Lynch's handling of The Elephant Man too frequently dwells in such joyless depths.

But Schnabel's approach and tone are more optimistic and triumphant: We cherish every one of Bauby's breakthroughs, while remaining astonished by the determination that grows into an obsession ... the need to get that book out of his head.

The means by which this amazing saga unfolds has only one flaw, and solely in this translated (subtitled) form: The letters of the alphabet that Henriette, Claude and Celine repeat so patiently and frequently, as Bauby painstakingly spells each word, are at odds with the subtitled letters we read on the screen.

The spoken names of letters of the alphabet aren't that different in French, and I couldn't figure out the disconnect until finally realizing that Bauby was spelling (for example) M-E-R-C-I to make merci, while the subtitles were spelling T-H-A-N-K-S to make thanks. That was a bad artistic decision, and it yanks us out of the unfolding story throughout the entire film.

That aside, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a deeply moving story of courage, resilience, perseverance and the strength of the human spirit. It's an incredible story, and Schnabel tells it cleverly and persuasively; his recently announced Oscar nomination is well deserved, as are those for Harwood's script, Kaminski's cinematography and Juliette Welfling's editing.

Not to mention the fact that I need to read Bauby's book.

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