Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Over Christmas break in Atlanta I saw Le Scaphandre et le papillon, or, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film by Julian Schnabel. The movie is based on a memoir by the same name of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated the book by blinking with his one functioning eye for each letter when he was completely paralyzed by a devestating stroke at the age of 43. Bauby, until his stroke, had been the editor of French Elle and a man-about-Paris, having recently left his wife for another woman.
The film won the Best Director prize at Cannes and just recently won for Best Director, Best Foreign Film and Best screenplay at the Golden Globes.
Bauby is played by Mathieu Armalric, who you might remember as "Louis" the french money-man from Munich. (Which is a fantastic performance). Armalric has that "ugly-sexy" Frenchman quality which is so appealing, and as I entered the theater I found myself wondering if he would be able to pull off a role where he would be totally immobile and for the most part, completely unrecognizable. Of course the answer is yes, he pulls it off brilliantly. In fact, because Armalric is such a charismatic presence on screen, when the film flashbacks to Bauby pre-stroke, it's only more devestating to see him, young and vivacious, when you already know what he's become.
Schnabel chose to film almost entirely from Bauby's perspective, meaning as the audience we see out of his one-eye. In the beginning of the film, when Bauby wakes up from his stroke, everything is fuzzy and blurred. When Bauby cries, so does the lens, and when a lovely set of breasts find their way in his line of vision, we hear Bauby's inner monologue, which acts as an amazing comic relief throughout the film.
Schnabel is obviously obsessed with beauty and with beautiful women in particular. Bauby's physical therapists, Marie, played by Schnabel's wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, and the other, Henriette, played by Marie Josee Croze, may be the two most beautiful women I have ever seen. Marie Josee Croze, (who you also may remember from Munich as the murdering female spy (who later meets a grisly death with her cat) is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.
Ultimately this is your run-of-the-mill story about a man who, when confronted by death, is forced into a realization that while he has lived his life to the fullest, he has not necessarily lived it in the noblest way, somewhat neglecting his children and certainly betraying his wife. But Schnabel's methods are anything but run-of-the-mill. And the scene that Bauby remembers, the last time he sees his father before the stroke, is one of the most touchingly realistic and humane moments I have ever seen on film. (This is largely due to the profound talent of Max von Sydow, who plays Bauby's father).
In a way, Bauby's stoke and subsequent imprisonment in his own body allows him the time (almost a year) to reconcile with his family and himself. The atonement takes the form of the book, which he dedicates to his children. Two days after finishing it, Jean-Dominique Bauby passed away.
Upon leaving the movie theater, I think we all were a little exhausted. Emotionally, that is. But there was a strange calm that reinforced itself as we drove home, almost as if it was too soon to say anything about the film. I myself wasn't entirely sure whether or not I had thought it a masterpiece. It was certainly good, but I thought it moved too slowly. This is the kind of movie that takes days (and now it has been weeks) to sink in. There are more moments I could discuss to prove my point, but I'll let you see them for yourself. I will say with full confidence that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the best films of the year, and yes, it is a masterpiece.