Saturday, February 16, 2008

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

If ever there was a film crying out for a first-person camera, this is it. It probably wouldn't have worked for Welles’ Heart of Darkness and it didn’t in The Lady In The Lake, but the story of a man with locked-in syndrome, adapted from the book written while he was in that condition is so ically internalised, his eye (and ears) remaining his sole contact with the world, that it seems like a shoe-in. Which is why the first section (3 scenes? 15 minutes?) is so electrifying, as we wake up with Jean-Do Bauby, the camera at his point of view, pulling focus all over the place with the effective result that people and objects lurch haphazardly out of the fog of three weeks’ coma-sleep. There’s even the best inside-of-the-eyelid shot since A Matter of Life and Death. Almost entirely paralysed, he has only the three resources of his eye, his imagination and his memory. During this first section the camera also starts to takes us into these memories and steps back to show Bauby before his stroke, handsome and relaxed , with lightly-worn self assurance; we get an idea of what he looks like now from passing reflection; and we start to get to know him from his interior monologue. But when the camera finally steps out of his literal or mental point of view, in the present, it is to the film’s detriment. The result is effectively shocking, and we are suddenly forced to disassociate ourselves from his mind and our close identification to consider a drooling lop-sided face – later almost a caricature in hospital-issue spectacles, one lens fogged-out, and slightly ridiculous hat – and the inert, limp body with twisted arms. Close identification is retained through his voice on the soundtrack but, over time, as his body loses all importance for him, all relevance, its continued presence on screen draws much of the power from his point of view. The other characters, of course can see him only as this body (with one eye, desperately alive), their access to the living mind so painfully restricted, and when we are asked to share this external perspective the extremity between the two points of view, the disparity between the dead body and the fully alive mind, are things that the film never manages to accommodate. And the first switch from one to the other comes casually, for no particular reason, an almost impressionistic formal stroke. Far more successful and lyrical are the forays away from literal point of view into his imagination, where he floats suspended in a motionless diving suit (though where’s the diving bell? In the translation, it turns out - scaphandre means diving suit, although besides its idiomatic ring, the diving bell seems like a metaphor for much greater constriction) or sees a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis (his imagination). More opaquely, glaciers fall monumentally into an ocean; and he imagines even himself, in the present, stranded in his wheelchair on a marooned structure in an angry sea. It is a shame that none of the scenes taking place in the present reality shown from outside his point of view play as though he were imagining how they would look; the most effective glimpse of his imagination is as he loses himself in his darkened reflection and the camera seamlessly follows his movement from reality to fantasy as it steps out of his head to a non-identified perspective for just the right moment of movement.

Schnabel’s method of work was reputedly no rehearsal and few takes. This is a film which underwent planning and preparation, as any must, but which strives to maintain the spontaneity of a more-swiftly achieved art (painting, say), and that it works is testament to the actors, really put on the line. But the same lack of rigour in the film’s form places the whole burden on its lyrical, impressionistic characteristics, moments thrown into place like spontaneous splashes of colour. Many of them work beautifully, such as the opening sequence, the shots of Bauby isolated against the ocean, the stroke, when it comes, and at just the right moment, from his point of view; but such an approach is for Schnabel a test, very much, of his taste. And despite consistently superb photography, it sometimes feels a little second-hand, or prettified – chocolate-box. The shot of a woman’s long red-chestnut hair flying in the wind is mesmerizing, but not quite enough so for the length of time that it is held, and is naggingly reminiscent of an ipod advertisement; when the scene moves to a stock situation of lovers driving a convertible through a beautiful landscape and sunshine with U2 playing on the soundtrack, it is only saved from playing exactly like a commercial by the swift editing which finds a more natural rhythm than the pointed (pointing) staccato hits of much advertising media. Schnabel was inspired by a transcendent moment whilst driving to the same (typically dirge-like) U2 song but it is a shame that his inspiration is so commonplace. Perhaps, however, it is only appropriate for a character at the forefront of popular, fashionable, media, however esoteric others of his tastes may run.

One of the film’s saving graces is that it is nonetheless impossible to forget the extraordinariness of Bauby’s situation, the enormity of his achievement, even though we are given little sense of the incredible length of time it takes to dictate a book letter by letter using only an eye, little sense of the boredom and frustration that must at times have been all-consuming. We share so much with him that not to share the weight of time, even in passing, is another unhelpful distanciation, a prettifying elision. He’s bored on the quiet Sundays, and the empty halls and pool we see certainly look boring, but we take his word for it rather than fully understand. This is in keeping with our strange mixed relationship to/with him wherein it is surprising to hear him express extremes of emotion: death-wish depression, which passes in one brief scene (more about his nurse than him – this is a film that is determinedly unmorbid); or when his spirits are up, when otherwise they seem rather on an even keel, mildly annoyed at most. Nonetheless, our understanding of his condition and empathy with it are enough established that when others evince more pity for themselves than him (his lover weeps down the telephone, but at least his nurse apologizes) or claim common understanding of his plight, we know that they haven’t quite got it: his friend held hostage for four years comes close, and has empathetic advice, but X is not especially impressed; and Max von Sydow as his apartment-bound father has already shown himself in one of Bauby’s memories to be a magnificent narcissist. Ultimately, the film is a qualified success, largely because much of this empathy comes from Bauby’s beautifully lyrical and uncomplicated prose, of which we get a lot, and which approaches – often – a state of poetry. This emotional level of communication is what at times Schnabel too seems to be aiming for but he just too often fails to transcend the prosaic.

d Julian Scnabel p Kathleen Kennedy, John Kilik sc Ronald Harwood ph Janusz Kaminski ed Juliette Welfling ad Michael Eric, Laurent Ott m Paul Cantelon cast Mathieu Amalric, Marie Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Isaach de Bankolé, Marina Hands, Jean-Pierre Cassel
(2007, USA, 112m)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!

June 16, 2008 at 1:47 AM  
Blogger tomvonloguenewth said...

that's radical. i had not heard about her - thanks. is a movie planned in fact? don't let someone else (me, for example..) steal the screenplay idea!

July 21, 2008 at 7:35 PM  

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