Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

"This is a Buddhist film.  I didn't know I was a Buddhist but I guess I'm turning into one."
 - Julian Schnabel

Quoted from an excellent interview of Schnabel by Charlie Rose included in the extras of this dvd. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly presents a film that looks looks at the preciousness of life in quite a tactile and intimate way from someone who seems to have verry little of it left to live. This film won the Golden Globe for best film in 2007, and Schnabel won the best director at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  

 Based on the true story of Jean-Dominque Bauby who at the age of 42 had a massive stroke that left him completely paralyzed except for his eyes.  One of his eyes wasn't irrigating properly so it had to be sewn up leaving him with only one eye.  A therapist devised a way to communicate with him that involved Jean-Do ( as his friends knew him) blinking when a certain letter was read off a list of the alphabet sequenced in frequency of use.  Though long and tedious, this system eventually worked to the point where he was able to dictate a memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life In Death, published two days before he died.  Prior to his accident, Bauby had been the Director of Elle Magazine in France and seemed to have everything going for him. 

I haven't read the book yet, just heard about this from a friend a few days ago.  A book from this perspective of someone completely trapped in their body barely able to communicate seems without precedent.  A transmission from an unique outpost of consciousness.  For Jean-Do, the diving bell symbolizes the immobility and stuckness of his body.  In the film, we see images of a diver in a massive, metallic, rigid, diving suit anchored underneath murky water.  The butterfly emerges when he's able to leave the body-space and take off on flights of imagination. 

 Schnabel and crew do an absolutely brilliant job telling this story.  He, and the film, certainly deserve all the accolades.  David Denby of the New Yorker called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly "nothing less than the rebirth of the cinema."  Part of the reason why can be discerned in the Rose interview which I'll get back to momentarily.

The first 1/3rd or so of this film and much of the rest gets told in the first person, from Bauby's perspective starting as he wakes out of a coma.  The camera work mirrors his vision - blurring, focusing, blurring, focusing as he struggles to regain consciousness.  The sensation of Jean-Do blinking was created by a camera operator manually flicking his fingers over the lens.  You experience what he experiences when a Doctor says that one of his eyes has to get sewn up and then immediately does it putting him (and the audience's shared perspective) in more darkness.

As suggested, a lot gets revealed in the Charlie Rose interview with Schnabel.  Rose begins questioning about the film by stating, "This is a film about death ... in part, and that intrigued you... why?"  Schnabel talks about his own fear of death (it was a big problem), and the great fear his father faced when dying.  He talks about making this film as way to decrease the fear others might have about dying.  He calls the film a self-help device.
 Rose says, " a self-help device?"
"To help me deal with my own death, and I think it worked.  I'm a lot less afraid to die now."

Right before the quote that opens this piece, Julian says that he felt Jean-Do transgressed and transcended death. The Rose interview gives a lot of insight into the art of making this film.  Julian talks openly about his processes and motivations.  He speaks movingly of his father who inspired a great scene in the film with Max von Sydow.  I was fortunate to meet his father when I worked with Julian in the early '90s which I wrote about here.

Schnabel also gets credited as Music Supervisor.  He did a great job with that too.  My favorites are the Tom Waits pieces especially All the World Is Green.

I'm really glad for the success of this film.  It was on many critics' top ten list for 2007 and several had it at number one.  When I recorded Julian Schnabel, he was just beginning to cast his first film, Basquiat, about the artist Jean-Michael Basquiat, as we were mastering his album.  It's great to see him now at the top of the film making game creating cinematic art that's substantial, inspiring, and healing.  Ya done good Julian!!! ... but you still owe me an art appreciation lesson.

Here's the trailer:

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