Come and See
By Michael Koresky
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Dir. Julian Schnabel, France/UK, Miramax
Point of view gets a major ocular workout in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which forces viewers to identify so fully with its paralyzed main character that even the peripheries of the frame seem like unapproachable boundaries. Neither experimental enough to function as a daring art-world oddity nor platitudinous enough to be damned only to an inevitable middlebrow audience, Schnabel’s strict adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s best-selling memoir means to drastically exploit the movie camera’s ability to recreate subjective experience. Along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the painter-filmmaker has more or less succeeded in turning his screen into a visual crawlspace we must readjust to living in; even though the device is thuddingly literal, especially when spliced together with montages and cutaways designed to visualize Bauby’s state of metaphorical consciousness, there’s no denying the essential aptitude of the approach. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly remains purposely hermetic all the way through, a sliver of a life etched across a narrow stream of celluloid.
Schnabel means to trammel spectators even as he ventures to free them from conventional ways of seeing—it’s dubious to claim this as radical art, as having the camera stand in for the subject’s vision has been used consistently over the past hundred years or so as a narrative device or gimmick. Often, the stirring from coma (recently, Tony’s reentry into our zone in The Sopranos’ season six) and waking from traumatic accidents (see Laure’s consciousness shift after being tossed off of a balcony in De Palma’s Femme Fatale) or dream states (the new French film The Man of My Life) are depicted with a subjective camera, its shutter approximating the opening and closing of the eyelid, its focus akin to the sleep dissolving out of the eye. Here, that commonly deployed cinematic awakening is stretched to nearly feature lengths: once the editor of French Elle magazine, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes from his massive cerebrovascular stroke, and the camera so completely embodies his blurred confusion that we aren’t even privileged a frontal view of the man. So, it’s us and not us—and so strictly beholden are we to the sight of a stranger that the feeling evoked may initially be closer to amnesia than paralysis. The seemingly interminable lengths of the opening subjective sequences speak both to the narrative frustration of the fixed frame and, successfully, the sense of being frozen unalterably in place. And not content to merely rely on angle and framing, Schnabel uses a host of camera tricks to approximate the movements of the eye: dissolves, flares, constant focus shifts—it’s all as dramatically effective as it is naggingly literal, expressive flourishes tied so utterly into character motivation and behavior that the mechanism threatens to wear out its welcome.
Yet for Schnabel, this film’s grounded, personalized narrative is simply the logical extension (or fitting end point?) of his moviemaking career thus far. Though a collage artist, and prone to bouts of visual abstraction, on screen he is drawn to rather conventional biopic trajectories, illustrated with adherence to his principals’ aesthetics: Basquiat’s street neo-Expressionism, the poetic, grainy realism of Before Night Falls, interspersed with lyrical asides from Reinaldo Arenas. With their forthrightly idiosyncratic central voices and struggling-artist self-consciousness, Schnabel’s films should rightfully be overly precious, or for the filmmaker, furtively self-aggrandizing—the scenester conveying artistic kinship with diseased or disabled poets, painters, and writers. Yet as he did with the elegantly designed and finely humane Before Night Falls, Schnabel again manages to overcome such kneejerk responses with Diving Bell, which looks at the world and its very self with genuine awe.
At first, it’s a little disconcerting to see Amalric as Bauby, since his performances have always been invested with such dynamic, frazzled physicality; the guileless, awkwardly break-dancing schlub from Kings and Queen has been reduced to a nearly vegetative state, his one functioning eye popped open and scanning the room in a desperate plea for communication, his lower lip protruding and caught in an awkward droop. Although Amalric is allowed to embody the mobile Bauby in some scattered flashbacks, most of his performance, once Schnabel breaks free from the film’s harsh subjective camerawork, is confined to his bed, his chair, his prison of atrophied flesh and bone; with his odd, duck-like attractiveness hobbled by paralysis, Amalric, reduced to winks and grunts, proves that his physical gifts as an actor extend even to the minutest gestures.
Schnabel’s other actors have a different challenge: often seen only through Bauby’s eyeline, Marie-Josée Croze and Anne Consigny as his (perhaps a mite too) angelic speaking aids, visiting friends Issach de Bankolé and Niels Arestrup, and Emmanuelle Seigner as his ex-wife, convincingly emote directly into the camera, often in an extreme close-up that encompasses the parameters of Bauby’s field of vision. With her sensible approach to speech therapy (Bauby can only blink and therefore is taught to adhere to a specially designed alphabet organized in order of letter recurrence, closing and opening his eye when his preferred letter is reached), Croze comes off as the requisite guardian angel, and her delicately nuanced work makes one forget her only audience is an emotionless camera lens.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is fascinated by the arduous task of living—and of breathing, seeing, feeling, expressing. In order to extricate itself from its own aesthetically defined shackles, the film commonly cuts away to images of Bauby floating in deep-sea gear and insect transformations, the diving bell and the butterfly of the title, encasement and metamorphosis. To expect anything less literal from Schnabel would be a mistake, but also to harshly criticize him for remaining locked in to his protagonists’ poetic realizations and creations would miss the point: Schnabel is nothing if not loyal to his subjects, one of his great assets as a filmmaker. And this spectacle of the fragility of the body and (by virtue of our alignment with its point of view) ourselves attempts to make its audience hyperaware of technique without sacrificing conventional narrative clarity. It’s artifice without detachment.