Julian Schnabel‘s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which screened for press at the 8:30 this morning, is a passable attempt to render a beautiful, inwardly-directed portrait about what is truly essential and replenishing in life. But the film is neither of these things, and is nowhere close in terms of poetic resonance and emotional impact to Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (’00). It’s sensitively realized and skillfully made, but it’s a movie about a state of nearly 100% confinement that itself too often feels confining.
Alfred Hitchcock attempted a similar-type experiment when he made Lifeboat, which takes place entirely aboard a lifeboat floating on the Atlantic, and yet he kept audiences involved all through it. Schnabel makes his tale as visually intriguing and ingenious as anyone could have, but he’s locked himself into tight a spot, I fear.
Variety columnist Anne Thompson recently wrote that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is “one of the hottest projects up for sale in Cannes” and that “a lot of distributors are chasing this one.” I don’t think this is the case any longer. The French-language Butterfly is opening in France right after the festival ends, but if I were an American buyer I would steer clear.
An adaptation of the late Jean-Dominique Bauby‘s memoir of the same name, it’s about how the self-satisfied, sophisticated Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) — an Elle editor with a wife three kids and a mistress — is left totally paralyzed after a massive stroke.
Bauby’s condition is called “locked-in syndrome,” which has left him unable to express himself except by blinking his left eye. A much more confining thing, in other words, than poor Chris Reeve‘s condition after breaking his neck
The book was written with the help of a transcriber who recited a frequency- ordered alphabet, waiting until Bauby blinked to indicate the correct letter. Each word reportedly took approximately two minutes to convey, and the book itself took about two hundred thousand blinks to write.
Like the book, Schnabel’s film chronicles Bauby’s sense of day-by-day, minute-by-minute imprisonment and how this condition paradoxically frees him from his previous obsessions and attentions. Schnabel clearly feels that Bauby become a richer, more spiritually fulfilled man after his misfortune, but he didn’t convince me of this. He seems to be saying that we all, in a sense, suffer from locked-in syndrome, and that we need to free our souls and imaginations and so on. That’s definitely a thought worth pondering, but I’d given this matter a lot of thought before sitting down this morning with Butterfly.
Bauby’s book was published on 3.6.97. It was well reviewed and sold 150,000 copies in the first week. But two days after the French version of the book was published, Bauby passed. I don’t think that was such a bad thing, frankly. I’m all for living and fighting until the last, but winking your way through an extremely restricted version of living tests the limits of this positivist philosophy.