Sunday, September 14, 2008

#68: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Ronald Harwood (based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Released May 23, 2007 (France)

If there's a more jarring double feature than the one I had tonight, pairing the ridiculously campy The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires with Julian Schnabel's moving, beautiful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I am unaware of its existence. To quote the boys in Monty Python: "And now for something completely different."

Diving Bell is the dramatization of magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiography, which he miraculously wrote after a stroke rendered him unable to move or speak, a condition referred to as "Locked-In syndrome." I say "miraculously" because Bauby wrote his autobiography by working with a speech therapist on a frequency-of-use alphabet and then blinking the entire book, letter by letter, to a transcriber hired by his publisher.

One of my favorite books (which was also made into a film) is Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, a fictional story about a soldier who survives a mortar attack, only to lose his sight, speech and limbs. The book is his inner monologue, and portions of Diving Bell feel much like that book, as if we are trapped in Bauby's body with him as the rest of the world acts upon him.

The effect of seeing the movie from Bauby's eyes is jarring, immediately stirring your emotions and forcing you to sympathize with the character whom you now inhabit. You can almost feel his frustration. Whey Bauby cries, the screen clouds over. As he slowly recovers, you and he fade in and out of consciousness. When he imagines himself in a different place, we go there with him.

The whole thing is emotionally overwhelming, but in a good way... a valuable way. Put in Bauby's place, we confront an affliction in a more realistic way than most movies have ever been able to show us. We learn about what it's like to be on both sides of that eyeball, and we slowly learn to stop taking for granted the immense gift of communication.

In a strange way, and maybe it's just because the news was at the top of my mind, watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly made me think of David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite writers, who just committed suicide a couple of days ago.

Foster wrote the epic Infinite Jest, possibly the greatest book I have never finished reading. I've often wondered if I haven't finished the book because the act of finishing it will make the act of immersing myself in it complete. When it's over, what will I do? Just scanning over a few pages convinces me of this man's obvious genius, so why rush things?

I felt like that watching this movie, wanting to savor it minute by minute and take away from it all of the sublime moments of beauty, sadness and victory. Ronald Harwood's script is naturalistic and poetic (of course, a lot of credit should go to Bauby), Juliette Welfling's editing is impeccable, and Schnabel (with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) achieves one of the rarest feats of direction: he manages to turn his camera into a human being. Of course, none of this could be achieved without a half dozen great performances, spearheaded by Mathieu Amalric's moving work as Bauby. His "narration" is the backbone of the entire movie, but Max von Sydow's few scenes as Bauby's father were the ones that sent me into fits of unstoppable tears.

Much like Infinite Jest, I was sure I was seeing something remarkable and extraordinary just a few minutes in. It didn't matter to me how the movie ended, or even where it was heading. I just wanted to keep experiencing it, regardless.

My friend Olivia once told me years ago that she wrote David Foster Wallace a letter after reading Infinite Jest. I think she felt a little silly admitting this to me, but I think I remember telling her that it was absolutely nothing to feel silly about. I once wrote a letter, when I was 15, to Eddie Vedder, and another one years later to Chuck D (who was on the same train as I was, but I was too afraid to approach him).

Tonight, when The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finished with the imagery of crumbling glaciers rising from the sea and reassembling themselves, I wanted to write Bauby a letter. I wanted to write Schnabel a letter. I even wanted to write Joe Strummer, whose "Ramshackle Day Parade" plays over the closing credits, a letter. I wanted to thank them all for what they just gave me, but two of those three men are gone from this world.

I'm not sure if Olivia sent that letter, but I hope she did. You should never feel silly communicating with anyone who may have touched you deeply, regardless of whether you know them or they know you. You never know when that other line will go unanswered, forever.

For more on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official site.
- Buy the DVD or the book.

The movie trailer:

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