If, as a colleague suggested, each of Julian Schnabel‘s now three supposed biopics are really just all about him, then we must be getting fonder of the footwear-averse artist/filmmaker, because we rather liked "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly." Adapted from the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film is the story of a mid-life transformation â€” Bauby was the editor-in-chief of Elle and the possessor of a glamorous lifestyle, a mistress, a wife and two children when a stroke left him, at age 43, almost completely paralyzed. Mentally intact, he couldn’t talk or move beyond blinking his left eye, a condition called locked-in syndrome. The film picks up as Bauby, voiced and eventually played by Mathieu Amalric, awakens, and it consists for a while only of an intriguing if gimmicky shot from his extremely restricted point of view, the focus warping, characters leaning into his field of vision to talk to him. It’s suffocating, as it should be, as Bauby realizes what happened and goes from rage to self-pity to self-disgust to a kind of acceptance that leads him to write the book on which the film is based with the help of a woman who recites a rearranged alphabet to him. He blinks when she reaches the letter he’d like. Then they start over from the beginning.
Schnabel likes his stylishness and gimmicks, and "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" is a film perfectly suited to that fact. Bauby can’t move â€” his only escape is his memory and his imagination, and both flood the film in hectic, more than vivid imagery. He summons the Empress EugÃ©nie, his hospital’s original patroness, to walk the halls in a rustling gown, while Nijinsky performs a leap in passing. He recalls a trip to Lourdes with a former girlfriend, he hoping for a dirty weekend, she intending to take in the holy water and purchase some religious icons, the night ending with him walking alone through the neon-lit streets. Less successfully, the film returns to the motifs of the title images, Bauby imprisoned in a diving suit or breaking free like a butterfly, ideas that could have done without further elocution. In the film, Bauby’s reality is often just as dreamlike and lovely as his inner life, a stay at a hospital by sea where beautiful women float in to care for him. Some fall in love with him, some he’d like to make amends to, but all he can really do is tell his story before his time runs out, which makes it all bittersweet enough to be bearable.
"The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" screens September 29 at 6pm and September 30 at 10am at at Frederick P. Rose Hall. It opens December 19th in limited release from Miramax.