Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Movies: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

You've never before seen a film like this, that draws you into its horror by its beauty, its frustration through its wonder, and its hackneyed inspirational message by its aesthetic freshness. The plot itself (a true story, by the way) is a recipe for cloying disaster: wealthy playboy (and semi-estranged father of three small children) Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, wakes up one day in a hospital bed, horrified to realize that no one can hear him speaking, and that his body will not move. He has suffered a stroke and a resulting full-body paralysis called "locked-in" syndrome; his mind works perfectly, but because of his immobility, it is near-impossible for him to communicate. The only thing that Bauby can move is a single eyeball and lid. The hospital provides a speech therapist who devises an inelegant but functional way for Bauby to spell out his thoughts to her by blinking his eye when she hits upon the correct letter, an effortful, painstaking way to construct words, instilling them, thereby, with much more value. His first sentence is a request for death, but he soon dredges up a will to live, and has his editor send a correspondent to the hospital every day, who, after learning the system of dictation, takes down his memoir. The book, upon which the film is based, was published, and a few days after, Bauby died. I plan to eventually read it.

As I said, this plot has all of the pretenses of an "inspirational" (i.e. "gag me with a spoon") tale (think The Peaceful Warrior, which, luckily, I did not see), just in time for the holidays. It also has all the makings of one of those movies designed particularly to make you cry (think The Pursuit of Happyness, which I fortunately did not see either; partially). And while I did shed the errant tear, more often, my jaw was stretched to its very maximum in horror and frustration and fear and anxiety—the precise emotions, I imagine, that rushed through Bauby when he discovered (as we simultaneously discover) that no one could hear him speaking (and then shouting, as they sew shut his incapacitated eye against his uninterpretable will). Bauby's emotions hit the audience so immediately because director Julian Schnabel chose to place the cyclopic camera in Bauby's one working eye (both eyes, at the very beginning, when we see our own view of the doctor being stitched away from us, a black needle and thread winding expertly through the center of the screen.) From that point on, we see four different kinds of shots: more hyper-lit, hyper-color, often blurry, blinking views of the world through Bauby's singular working eye; crisp, full-cover scenes from Bauby's memory, in which we see the the man in his prime; fantasy sequences in which Bauby pictures himself suspended in murky waters wearing antique deep sea diving gear and as a buzzing insect flying amidst giant grasses and bobbing flower heads, as a championship skier, a surfer, and as Marlon Brando; and finally scenes in which we see Bauby as his visiting friends and family see him (and how he sees himself for the first time in a mirror): frozen, bloated, his lower lip pulled to the side in a hopelessly ugly gesture, spotted with drool.

The visual experience itself makes this film worth watching, but the sharp, witty, and never-patronizing (to Bauby or to the audience) dialogue deepens the audience's connection with Bauby. His ability to maintain wit within the confines of his frustration lure us into connection with his psyche; those stilted cues that put us in a critical, outsider position, so often found in more trite films on the topic of healing, are not to be found, and so all barriers to our unmediated experience are removed. Schnabel has thus outstripped both himself and his peers with this film, which is on my required viewing list for anyone who has any interest in any kind of art at all.

1 comment:

andrew said...

Dahl! You’re right. No Country for Old Men isn’t quite as good as I first thought. I think it’s great, but it’s not the best movie of the year. But Dahl. Dude.

I have a bit of interest in art. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an atrocity of disability porn, which is the Antichrist of art.

One thing all you Dahlfins should know about your leader: movies have to be aphrodisiacs for her to like them. Let me tell you what happens in this movie, and it's only one thing, so spoiler alert: the editor of Elle wakes up from a coma and five ravishing French girls lovingly translate his blinks, wipe his drool, and call him "their butterfly" alongside the proven├žal coast. Needless to say, he dies as soon as his body gives him the power to sing.

When looking at a tool one day, I realized that you only desire Chinese character tattoos if what they say is too embarrassing to write on your body in English. Dahl, if this film were in American or British, even dumb people would laugh at it for asking us to take a drooling aphrodisiac seriously. French, for those who don’t speak it, makes such a character romantically possible.

You see, Dahlfins, nothing happens in this film because not Bauby nor Schnapel nor Harwood think the women should be more than aphrodisiacs themselves. And that’s what's actually cyclopic about Schnapel's metaphor for cinema. If Jean-Duh's nurses were ugly or men, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” would be a movie whose prettiness, metaphors, chauvinism, and existence Dahl would never have had the chance to mistake for beauty, new, good, or art.