In many ways, Julian Schnabel’s often majestically off-putting presence in person makes the excellent reviews that "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is receiving all the more impressive â€” one never wants to encourage someone so secure in the conviction of his own genius. The film, which is based on the memoir Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated by blinking his left eyelid after a stoke left the rest of him paralyzed, is now looking like a major year-end best-of/award candidate. We liked it too, though not as much â€” our review from the New York Film Festival is here.
"Whatever Schnabelâ€™s posturings as a painter," writes David Edelstein at New York, "heâ€™s a major film director, alive not only to light and texture but to charactersâ€™ emotionsâ€”which twist the light and warp the textures and permeate the canvas." Raves David Denby at the New Yorker, "Schnabelâ€™s movie… is a gloriously unlocked experience, with some of the freest and most creative uses of the camera and some of the most daring, cruel, and heartbreaking emotional explorations that have appeared in recent movies." Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly is cautious of the overly gorgeous film, noting that "I tend to be wary of ethereal composition applied to unpoetic, human, physical mess, for its romanticizing, narcotizing effect," but in this case finding that "this assertive adaptation brings Jean-Dominique Bauby’s phenomenal memoir… to life honestly." Armond White at the New York Press, chooses to devote most of his review to ragging on "Control," but still declares that "Diving Bell" "tells a real personâ€™s life story so
inventively you might forget how rotten recent biopics have been."
Glenn Kenny at Premiere
notes that "Diving Bell" is "an exemplary film about the so-called
triumph of the human spirit by largely upending every clichÃ© the usual
cinematic treatment of the triumph of the human spirit indulges." "At
times, ‘Bell’ seems heightened and romanticized, particularly in the
way everyone around Bauby remains supportive and attentive, even at
their own expense," adds Tasha Robinson at the Onion AV Club.
"But that just prevents the film from becoming standard-arc
disease-of-the-week fare, with its programmed trials and inevitable
victories. Instead, Schnabel’s sleepy, drifty, at times morbidly funny
film tackles something more ambitious, by getting into the head of
someone who’s trying to get out of there himself."
A.O. Scott at the New York Times writes that Schnabel "demonstrates his own imaginative freedom in every frame and sequence, dispensing with narrative and expository conventions in favor of a wild, intuitive honesty," and Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek muses that "The picture is so imaginatively made, so attuned to sensual pleasure, so keyed in to the indescribable something that makes life life, that it speaks of something far more elemental than mere filmmaking skill: This is what movies, at their best, can be." "Conscious life itself, even at its most extremely limited parameters, has never been so richly ennobled on the screen as it is here," concludes Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer.
Dissenters: Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE is ambivalent: "So is this art cinema posing as a middle-brow biopic, or a middle-brow
biopic posing as art cinema? Either way, it’s an engrossing oddity, a
film that is too superficial and obvious to be truly profound but also
too strikingly vivid and affecting to be dismissed." Nick Schager at Slant is not, and declares that Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have adapted Bauby’s memoir "with only slightly more restraint than that shown by competitive gorger Kobayashi at Nathan’s annual hot dog-eating contest. It’s Johnny Got His Gun (or, at least, the portions used in Metallica’s ‘One’ video) via My Left Foot, stylistically Miramax-ized to within an inch of its life." And Scott Foundas at the LA Weekly writes, hilariously, that if the Cannes Best Director award (which "Diving Bell" won) "were determined solely on the basis of quantity, there would be no question that Schnabelâ€™s was deserved, for there is more directing per square inch of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly than one is likely to find in any other movie released this year."