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The Elixir in Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) October 23, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, Biopic, Cinemanila, European Films, Literature.
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French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Max Von Sydow
Based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir

The closest thing to being buried alive is running the shortest distance between heaven and earth, the case when you believe both ends of human life, heaven as a euphemism for Lucifer’s den and earth as where all sleeping dogs lie, short enough for the line to blur, as if existing in two far-fetched worlds at the same time can equip you with a stroke of partial omniscience. Schnabel, in his attempt to paint the remaining years of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life during his “locked-in” state, not only delivers a moving fragment of fate’s indomitable power to tangle disconnected lines but also creates a heartrending document of the endless virtues of human imagination, the purest vision of all, because in this concentric circle where we all walk, there is never enough time to compensate for all the things we have lost – – never really enough time – – because time lies and time kills us all, one second after another.

Schnabel’s interest in filming biographies proves how personal his art can be. He filmed Basquiat because perhaps he was once Basquiat himself; he filmed Reinaldo Arenas because perhaps the writer’s style has influenced him a lot; he filmed Bauby because, well, perhaps the man’s unbelievable hold in the final days of his life inspired him to share it with the world – – quizas, quizas, quizas. Personal expression moves beyond his world, his art, and it becomes a need, a life, an afterlife, like every artist considers his craft is. Basquiat remains to be seen but Before Night Falls fails to win me over; it feels like a ponderous burden from start to finish, even Javier Bardem can’t save it. But there is that unmistakable eye for unconventionality, that disregard for immature ideas, that lapse between beauty and madness, that magnificent anomaly that is difficult to resist, telling you that he will make up for everything in his next work. And yeah, what a promise. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only his third film, everything becomes a culmination of his sweeping power to recall life through death, a breathing record of magnificence – – a paradox that speaks more on who we are not than who we are.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving with his son for a trip. In a coma for twenty days, he woke up with his entire body paralyzed, except for his left eye. His locked-in state deprived him of any movement aside from rolling his eye and blinking his eyelid, looking at the farthest horizon that his eye could ever reach: vegetative, maimed, barely alive. He was still mentally capable – – he could answer yes or no with a blink of an eye, he could form words and sentences through dictation, blinking through letters that his therapist spoke, a feat of immense difficulty, the only way for him to speak his mind. Accomplished as he was, he had few visitors. He had a wife and kids, as well as a girlfriend who failed to visit him. Through letter-by-letter dictation with his interlocutor, Bauby had written his memoir – – Le Schapandre et Le Papillon – – published in 1997, a runaway bestseller which Bauby had only enjoyed for ten days after a fatal pneumonia.

Irony has never been more resounding than this: I felt even more alive after seeing the film. The use of Bauby’s point of view – – his eye, his view of the world, his only window to physical universe – – provides a groundbreaking feat of emotional hinge, it’s as if every wink of his eye is equivalent to a life born, a soul cleansed, a purpose revivified, and an existence justified. That opening sequence is prolonged enough to put the film in its proper pace, we feel what he feels, we see the people through his eyes, we feel his heart cringe, his hopes crash, his dreams fade – – all the visual pain given to us is rewarding; Schnabel’s brush knows exactly what to paint, where to put emphasis, when to furnish the garnish, how to mix the colors of life and death in perfect tone, and the result is a striking portrait of sublimity; it is paralyzingly beautiful. Under such spell I am powerless.

Understandably, controversies arise regarding how faithful it is to Bauby’s life – – can a film ever be faithful to life? – – which part is fact and which part is fiction, how his relationship with his wife and girlfriend is distorted to create a more cinematic scenario, how he managed to have three kids instead of two, how Bauby never really wanted to die in the beginning, even the legalities of adapting Bauby’s memoir based on the ownership of the “droit moral” which basically is “an intellectual right of an artist to protect his work” thus asserted by Bauby’s wife – – all these elaborately written in Beth Arnold’s The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

But the truth is no one really knows what’s going through his head during those two years in vegetative state. No one can claim the exact truth; even Schnabel cannot. But what Schnabel did was take a piece of his life, plant it in his head for years, wait for it to grow, then after some time it flourished, it bore fruits and became one of the most moving works in recent years. Who says nothing can sum up a man’s life in two hours? Schnabel just did. Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow deliver electrifying moments brisk enough to melt you in your seats. And in that magical flashback when Bauby returns home, drives around Paris, and meets his family, in possibly the greatest hommage ever made to 400 Blows, that music of bliss reassures you how comforting it is to live by looking at other people’s failures destroyed by faith, because imprisonment only becomes a choice when you stop fighting against it.

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