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Bell jarring

Schnabel’s Butterfly is the year’s best
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 18, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Le scaphandre et le papillon|The Diving Bell And The Butterfly | Directed by Julian Schnabel | Written by Ronald Harwood based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby | With Michel Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hinds and Max Von Sydow | Miramax Pictures | French | 112 minutes
So far this year, the efforts to adapt books deemed unfilmable have proved just that: Love in the Time of the Cholera, The Golden Compass, Atonement for the most part. None posed a graver challenge than Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir. The vivacious editor of French Elle suffered a stroke in 1995, at the age of 43, and was left completely paralyzed, with the exception of one eyelid. (He died two years later, of heart failure.) Blinking in code, he managed to communicate with others and eventually wrote the book. Call it My Left Eye.

Good luck to any filmmaker attempting to render this “locked-in” syndrome into compulsive viewing for 112 minutes. It took scriptwriter Ronald Harwood, who floundered so badly with Gabriel García Márquez’s seam-busting Cholera, to help tap into the riches of this minimalist scenario. But no doubt director Julian Schnabel made the difference. As with his Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), he’s drawn to the plight of the imagination struggling against limits, and Bauby’s Beckett-like extremity has inspired his best film to date and the best film of the year.

At first, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric in a precise and overwhelming performance) doesn’t seem all that bad off, though his condition is a little like the torture of Tantalus. Beautiful, loving women surround him, like Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz López Garmendia), his physical and speech therapists. (Bauby’s remark when the latter, played by Schnabel’s own wife, demonstrates how she wants him to manipulate his tongue, is a classic.) More prickly are the visits of his ex-wife, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), who notes with satisfaction that Bauby’s present girlfriend, Inés (Agathe de La Fontaine), hasn’t made an appearance.

But such artifacts of his old life as jealousy aside, infantilism has its limits, especially for a man of the world, and word, like Bauby. And so the onerous process of learning the code, in which letters are repeated like a prayer and a blink indicates which is to be chosen. Blind Milton dictating Paradise Lost had it a lot easier than does Bauby eking out his memoir to amanuensis Claude (Anne Consigny).

Up to a certain point, all this is seen, Lady in the Lake–like, from Bauby’s pop-eyed, delimited point of view, and his sardonic inner commentary emerges from somewhere behind the screen. His, and the viewer’s, first glimpse of his condition is a chance reflection in a shiny surface, and it’s a shocker. (“I look like something in a jar of formaldehyde,” Bauby observes.) But he still seems a good sport, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when he blinks out to the devout and dutifully shocked Marie, “I want death.”

It’s only then that he truly considers the alternative to death, and his mind soars from the diving bell of his useless body to the butterfly of his memory and imagination. The episodes of his life — past, present, imagined — fill his mind and the screen seemingly at random. But a pattern, or an inevitability, emerges, and the film returns at last to Charles Trenet crooning the bittersweet “La mer” in the opening frames. The song plays in Bauby’s convertible as he takes an increasingly erratic ride, the last of his life. Like a variation on Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or Jorge Luis Borges’s “El milagro secreto,” Bauby’s seeming affliction is a temporary reprieve from, and the ultimate reconciliation with, death.

  Topics: Reviews , Jean-Dominique Bauby , Julian Schnabel , Ronald Harwood ,  More more >
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