The Reeler


November 28, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Handsomely composed and minimally maudlin, Bauby biopic is competent but unmemorable

An unusually bitter member of the press corps was grumbling before the lights went down at a screening of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. "I've broken my neck three times," he said to no one in particular, "and I didn't get a movie deal, because I didn't have a girlfriend to get me a book deal." The facts were all wrong: Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose memoir is the source material for Ronald Harwood’s screenplay, suffered a paralyzing stroke, not a physical mishap, and had a book contract in place before the stroke -- not being able to move just gave him time to use it. But the sentiment lingered: How is this triumph of the human spirit different from all others?

Not particularly, as it turns out. Handsomely composed and minimally maudlin, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is yet another tale of tragedy enabling growth and the imagination trumping all. In the film's biggest formal gambit, the first segment unfolds from the newly-paralyzed Bauby's perspective: The lens opens to nothingness over sound, then to random colors and distortions, with faces barely discernible from the murk. Gradually, everything comes into focus as Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) thinks inglorious thoughts about himself ("I look like I came out of a vat of formalahyde") and others (he spends most of his first days ogling the cleavage of his nurses). He's the martyr as spoiled bastard; accustomed to a fast-paced, materialist lifestyle as the editor of French Elle, he despises his own rigidly fixed face.

Bauby’s triumphs are twofold, and first is one of imagination. Quite an imagination it is, too: In Schnabel’s rendering the voyage of self-discovery and embracing oneself consists of walls symbolically crumbling, fast-paced downhill skiing, even Bauby imagining himself as the reincarnation of Marlon Brando. Once the nurses have worked out an eyeball-blink system of communication (they recite the alphabet, in order of most- to least-used letters; he blinks when they've hit on the right one), he starts dictating a book. This book/movie: "Five hours of work," he thinks after one day's effort. "Not bad. It's not Balzac."

It certainly isn't. Diving Bell's greatest asset consists largely of a deficit: It's low on people weeping in inspiration at Bauby's example and high on Bauby's perpetually dissatisfied days and ingrained bad habits. (At the peak of a near-reconciliation with his ex-wife, he kicks her out of the room to listen to his neglectful mistress weep on the phone about how she can't bear to visit him.) Schnabel finds relief in near-idylls, and though you can try not to be manipulated, a long, slow summer afternoon on a beach with melancholy Tom Waits in the background can't help but do its stuff. Once Bauby is well into his writing task, there's little for Schnabel to do but retreat into flashbacks until the end; because Bauby died two days after the book's French publication, the movie ends with the longest death-and-reminiscence montage since American Beauty.

I was grateful for Diving Bell's lack of emotional speeches (kind of a logistical impossibility, considering) and orchestral swells, but there's little to keep your attention beyond the moment-to-moment thrill of Schnabel's self-consciously arty compositions. Mathieu Amalric is one of the world's finest physical actors; his breakdancing turn in Kings And Queen (and his work in general for Arnaud Desplechin) has to be seen to be believed. Paralyzed, he's wasted; even in flashbacks, he lacks the agility that marks most of his performances. Behind the camera, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski confirms my long-standing suspicion that, even when not collaborating with Steven Spielberg, over-lighting is dominant: a flare arrived right on schedule some five minutes in, presumably striking Bauby right in the cornea.

Similar and similarly frivolous thoughts and quibbles occupied my brain until the not-too-terrible movie with the occasional great shot burbled over to its inevitable inspirational ending. Then it faded out of my mind in -- ha! -- the blink of an eye.

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