Saturday, May 17, 2008


Not love, which I have always felt is quite miraculously spread around among us, but a good movie made from a good book, which I just watched tonight:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The book was written by an editor of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, after he was felled by a massive stroke and paralyzed except for his eyelids... with the help of a woman hired to take dictation one letter at a time... Bauby describes what it is like to be trapped inside a completely uncooperative body, from the inside. It's an amazing, funny, sad book.

Bauby died just ten days after it was published.

Now Julian Schnabel, the artist who made Javier Bardem into a Cuban poet in Before Night Falls, has made a brilliant, funny, sad movie of the book. I have rarely seen a more beautiful film; one review did point out that Schnabel makes it easy on himself by hiring a bevy of very attractive women to play the women in Bauby's life. But all the actors are both convincing and moving. The great Max von Sydow plays Bauby's ancient father.

The real miracle of the film is the combination of the grim reality of his situation and what becomes a breathtaking internal freedom, rendered in compelling visuals by Schnabel.

The movie begins claustrophobically, as we see the blurry bustle of the hospital room from Jean-Dominique’s hazy, panicked perspective. Faces loom suddenly and awkwardly into view, while his captive consciousness writhes in its cage, trying to make contact with the world outside.

After a while it does, with the help of a speech therapist (the marvelously sensitive Marie-Josée Croze) who patiently teaches Jean-Dominique to turn his left eyelid into a means of communication. She sits beside him, reciting the alphabet and stopping when he blinks, piecing together words and sentences from his signals.

Later an amanuensis (Anne Consigny) takes her place, and together she and Jean-Dominique compose the compact, lyrical book that will become Mr. Schnabel’s expansive, passionate film. Their attention also introduces both the patient and the audience to an intense, nonsexual intimacy that is itself a form of love.

As Jean-Dominique’s eloquence takes flight, so does Mr. Schnabel’s. Condemned to live in an eternal present, Jean-Dominique is also freed from the tyranny of time, and so the film ranges freely into fantasy, speculation and remembrance, given shape not by a plot but by the ecstatic logic of images and associations. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he uses light and color to convey the world of sensations from which Jean-Dominique is exiled, but which he appreciated all the more acutely for that reason.

And so, curiously enough, a movie about deprivation becomes a celebration of the richness of experience, and a remarkably rich experience in its own right. In his memoir Mr. Bauby performed a heroic feat of alchemy, turning horror into wisdom, and Mr. Schnabel, following his example and paying tribute to his accomplishment, has turned pity into joy. [NY Times]

I did burst into tears shortly after the end of the movie, but then, that's me all over. But then, when art comes so close to the heart of "real life," maybe that's not the worst response.

You may not like it.
As you can probably tell, I did.
You take it from here...

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