Julian Schnabel is one of the most accomplished warriors in the ongoing, cutthroat fight for patronage in the New York art world. (Even just hearing his name, I can’t help humming “Putting it Together” from Sunday in the Park With George.) I cannot remember seeing anything of his art, except for his second and third feature films, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Both films—along with Schnabel’s first feature, Basquiat—are memoirs of men distinguished in the arts who died prematurely and under anomalously tragic circumstances.
Before Night Falls, which introduced American art-house audiences to the enormous talents of Javier Bardem, was the life story of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, a man who—literally—never caught a break in life. Born into poverty and persecuted by Castro, who threw Arenas into his dankest prisons, Arenas finally escaped in the Mariel boatlift, only to die at 47, an assisted suicide in a squalid New York apartment, a victim of AIDS. (Arenas’ book tells us what Schnabel’s film wouldn’t or couldn’t—that his life in America was a series of fights with his publishers, who refused to pay back royalties for the books they published while Arenas still lived in Cuba.) Before NightFalls,with its mélange of cinematic styles supplemented by actual documentary footage of 1960s Cuba, was an unusually thrilling, powerful film. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,Schnabel’s follow-up, is even better.
Jean-Dominique Bauby, in contrast with Arenas, led a charmed life until he was 43. The editor-in-chief of Elle, Bauby lived in luxury, moving in the highest circles of Parisian haute couture and intellectual life, with two lovely children and a series of beautiful, adoring mistresses. He was out on a weekend jaunt with his son when he suffered the catastrophic stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome,” a condition so rare that his French doctors had no native term for it. His brainstem was damaged permanently, leaving his brain intact but cutting it off from the rest of his body. He could not speak, or move any part of his body except his left eyelid. With the help of a dedicated therapist, Bauby learned to communicate by blinking that eyelid, spelling out each word letter by painful letter; through that method he dictated his memoir, Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). He lived just long enough to see that slender, exquisite book in print before dying of pneumonia, a month short of his 45th birthday.
In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel puts to brilliant use the same panoply of cinematic techniques he displayed in Before Night Falls. The film is shot from Bauby’s point of view, and it is nearly a half-hour into the film before we even see the twisted, motionless husk of Bauby’s body. The beginning of the film is a confused flutter of light and dark with flashes of hazy, washed-out color—conveyed superbly by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski—as Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes from the three-week coma that immediately followed the stroke. Soon, with gradually building coherence and precision, we hear Bauby intoning his waking thoughts, rational and matter-of-fact, as if he were commenting on the plight of an acquaintance. Unable to move his lips, he chides in the silence of his brain the ignorant presumptions of his doctors and therapists (when one of them refers to “your wife Celine,” Bauby’s inner voice snaps, “She’s not my wife, she’s the mother of my children!”) Only when one doctor proposes sewing his right eyelid shut, to prevent the eyeball from ulcerating, does Bauby’s voice take on an edge, and then a torrent, of panic. We see the last agonizing shudder of light through the eyelid as the doctor carefully stitches it closed—the final curtain on Bauby’s former life, going down forever.
The rest of the film becomes the history of Bauby’s consciousness during the final months of his life, trapped in the sanitarium on the seashore at Berck-sur-Mer: a history of his daydreams, memories, regrets. We see his devoted therapists Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel’s wife) bathe him, dress him, do what they can to communicate with the still-sharp mind behind the twisted, immobile face. (The scenes of Henriette teaching Bauby to communicate by blinking, the number of blinks corresponding to the order of the letters on her chart, are simultaneously exultant and migraine-inducing.)
We see the imagined figures of Empress Eugenie, the sanitarium’s first patron, and Vaclav Nijinsky, one of its most illustrious patients. We feel Bauby’s agony that he will never again make love to a woman, run on the beach with his children, talk to his father. One of Bauby’s visitors brings home all of Bauby’s regrets for wrongs he can never right: Roussin (Niels Arestrup), a journalist taken hostage in Beirut for four years after his airplane was hijacked. Bauby should have been on that plane, but he gave up his seat to Roussin; when Roussin finally returned to Paris, Bauby never called him.
Schnabel, Amalric and scenarist Ronald Harwood excel at conveying the sharp, tart processes of Bauby’s mind. Amalric’s Bauby can be compared with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown in My Left Foot, but Day-Lewis at least was allowed to speak. Amalric must convey all of Bauby’s quickness of mind and spirit through the one moving eye, and this he does to a remarkable degree. Of course it helps that he has flashback scenes as the able-bodied Bauby, a self-centered but well-meaning sybarite. One scene depicts Bauby giving his elderly father a shave as they talk frankly about women; the scene, as played by Amalric and the venerable Max von Sydow, is a textbook example of how to play deep emotion beneath a light, bantering surface. (A later scene, depicting the last telephone call between the now-immobilized Bauby and his frail, dying father, has few equals for its simple, overwhelming poignancy. How the Motion Picture Academy could have overlooked Amalric and von Sydow in the past year’s Oscar nominations is utterly beyond me.)
The film never tries to sanctify Bauby; he had a messy life before the stroke, and its aftermath only compounds the mess. One agonizing scene has the faithful Celine (Emannuelle Seigner), who has sacrificed a great deal for Bauby’s sake, being forced to field a phone call from Bauby’s last mistress Ines (Agathe de la Fontaine), who hasn’t even bothered to visit. Celine must convey Ines’ question to Bauby whether he wants her to come. He blinks out his answer, to Celine’s obvious pain: “More than anything.” At another point, the pious Marie takes Bauby to Mass. He appreciates her kindness and her prayers, but remains a skeptic, remembering a semi-comic trip to Lourdes with Ines. (In a witty doubling-up, Schnabel has Jean-Pierre Cassel, in one of his last film appearances, play both the compassionate priest of Marie’s church and a venal, fast-talking souvenir salesman at Lourdes. Schnabel has a predilection for actors in dual roles; in Before Night Falls, he had Johnny Depp portray both a sadistic police captain and a flamboyant drag queen.)
In the end, Bauby and his plight can’t be reduced to bromides, and we should bless Schnabel and Harwood for not even trying. I remember a quote from Mark Twain, to the effect that a man’s true autobiography is the record of what goes on in his mind. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a prime example of the attempt to capture that in literature, and the film version may be the outstanding attempt to do so cinematically. Surrounded as in his earlier days by beautiful, adoring women—Celine, Marie and Henriette, to be joined later by Claude (Anne Consigny), the publisher’s assistant who took the dictation for the book—Bauby has nothing left but to examine and express the essence of his being. More than any film I can think of, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about the very state of being, of consciousness—the burden of it, but also, far more, the blessing. It is a film about what it means to be a human being, and what that mostly means, Schnabel and Harwood conclude, is love. Bauby in the end was lucky enough to be surrounded by love and devotion of the very highest sort, and in the end he expressed his gratitude for it, letter by letter, blink by blink. Putting it together.