(With the Diving Bell and the Butterly opening in America this weekend, we're re-running James's review of the film from the Cannes Film Festival in May of this year.)
After seeing Julian Schnabel's Cannes competition entry Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), I staggered into the light awestruck, a little moved, my heart and mind both racing with the excitement and power of the film I'd just seen. I ran into a fellow film critic, who wanted a fast take on the third film from painter-turned-director Schnabel, his follow-up to Basquiat and Before Night Falls. "Imagine a Spike Jonze-Charlie Kauffman-Michel Gondry-style film," I said, "but with a warm, beating heart instead of cool, detached hipster irony. ..." Based on the true story of Jean-Dominic Beauby, the editor-in-chief of the French edition of Elle, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins in blinding, blurry light; there's been an accident, and Jean-Do (as his friends call him, here played by Mathieu Amalric) has just woken from a coma. We're seeing the world through his eyes, and things don't look good.
Jean-Do's had a massive cerebro-vascular accident, as his doctors tell him in hushed tones; all Jean-Do can move is his left eyelid. "It won't comfort you to know," one notes, "that your condition is extremely rare." Soon, therapists are suggesting to Jean-Do that he can communicate by blinking; one for 'yes,' two for 'no' with longer ideas expressed by someone reading a list of the letters of the alphabet, starting with the most frequently used and moving down the line, waiting for Jean-Do to blink and indicate which letter he wants. A letter becomes a word become a sentence, blink by blink -- but is this really a way for Jean-Do to communicate with the world?
In film making, as in libel law, the truth is its own defense; if the story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were some screenwriter's invention, you'd be moved to nausea by the blatancy of the device. But Beauby's story is real; Beauby wound up dictating, via eye blink, the memoir this film is adapted from. The other thing that makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly engage us is that it's not just a story of the struggle of the human spirit against adversity; it's a story about the struggle of the human spirit against itself. At first, as we're privy to Jean-Do's inner monologue, he can't be even bothered to try. He's heartsick with the idea of just being an eye, an urban, witty and active man who's had all that taken away from him, and left a gargoyle, a statue, a monster.
But Jean-Do's comes to grips with the facts, fast: All he has, he reasons, is his memory and his imagination, so he had best use both. He does start to communicate, and at the same time, his steely resolve is matched by good humor. As Jean-Do looks back at his virile life and times, a handsome man capers and grins on camera, the very image of masculinity; Jean-Do's voice cuts his own reverie short; "No -- that's Marlon Brando!" And it is. Schnabel's visual gifts, aided and assisted by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, find visual poetry big and small in Jean-Do's inner story -- whether it's a decision to try being accompanied by majestic images of calving icebergs, or the simple-yet-effective trick when Jean-Do decides to attempt the blink-communication method and the camera gives us the first long shot of him, moving the film outside his perspective as he decides to extend himself to the world.
We see Jean-Do's relationship with his friends and family unfold in the past and present: his father (Max Von Sydow), the mother of his children (Anne Consigny), his two therapists (Jean-Marie Crosee and Emmanuelle Seigner). We also come to understand Jeanne-Do -- he was a little vain, a little foolish. (Discussing his son's decision to leave his partner, Von Sydow gets off what may be the single most French line of all time: "Having a mistress is no excuse for leaving the mother of your children; the world has lost its values. ...") But we also get a sense of his humor, his strength, his regrets: "My life was a string of near-misses ... the women I failed to love, the chances I let slip away. ..."
Schnabel's visual sense is exquisite and brilliant, whether in a first-person view of Jean-Do having his left eyelid sewn shut to protect it or a later sequence where Jean-Do walks the streets of Lourdes amid bright signs proclaiming the availability of healing waters; the sacred and the profane, glowing holy like a neon bible. The cutting and intercutting is masterful; the sense of space and place profound; the inventions work in service to the story, and never overshadowing it or used as a rickety ramp in the absence of narrative. Jean-Do can't move, and yet he's on the greatest journey of his life -- and Schnabel conveys this perfectly, without hyperbole or sentiment, but always with power and real feeling. I'm rarely moved by so-called 'inspirational' films -- often they're syrupy and cheap -- but I found myself on the edge of tears more than a few times during The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, not thinking of Jean-Do but of myself: What were my own reasons for not living? What were my reasons for not loving? And what could I possibly have to overcome that measured up to what Beauby faced? The Diving Bell and The Butterfly may be avant-garde and bold, but it's also plain-spoken and real -- a movie well worth seeing, with images and lessons that strike with power and don't let go.