Photograph by Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
Use Your Words: Marie-Josée Croze is Jean-Dominique Bauby's devoted 'speech' therapist in Julian Schnabel's 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.'
'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' plumbs the depths of ego and the hell of paralysis
By Richard von Busack
At 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby, nicknamed Jean-Do, was felled by "a cerebro-vascular accident" that left him lucid but locked in a paralyzed body. Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes the inside angle on Bauby's story. I'd be interested, now that Diva has been revived, to see J. J. Beineix's short documentary on Bauby, Assigné à résidence. Mostly, what the much-lauded Diving Bell and the Butterfly does is show you the imprisonment from the prisoner's view. Thus, you end up longing for what all prisoners long for: escape. Our keyhole view out of Bauby's fleshly cell is Schnabel's relentless subjective camera—including an eye-sewing-up sequence apparently guest-directed by Eli Roth.
In voice-over, Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, mutters responses to his physicians when they say inanities like, "I'm afraid it's just one of those things." There is a consolation prize: a beautiful, passionate speech therapist named Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze). She coaxes "speech" out of Bauby's one remaining muscle, the lid of his right eye. "This is the most important job I've ever had," she says. (Michael Moore must be right about the French medical system.) Holding up a chart with the alphabet on it, the nurse allows the silent patient to speak one letter at a time.
The story of a man blinking out his memoir sounds spiritual, but it's also about the tremendous power of ego. I think it's the egotistical quality that made a figure like Schnabel try it out. As a fine artist, Schnabel has an eye for the shiny stiffness of a formal Victorian gown, or a sea breeze flittering a thin skirt around a brown thigh. But the voice-overs from Bauby's book aren't as urgently written as you'd imagine from a book semaphored by an eyelid. The fantasy sequences and flashbacks give us relief from the tight close-up of Amalric's one lolling eye and one twisted mute lip. Unlike Christy Brown, who was a slum kid who trained his palsied left foot to write, Jean-Do was a famous man when he had his stroke. He was the editor of French Elle, and his memories are fashion magazine-worthy. The ordinariness of the ideas are right in the title: Bauby's submerged shell, the flittering butterfly, his soul.
Catholicism sets in: the devout Henriette is moved to anger and tears when Bauby blinks out a message: "I WANT DEATH." She hauls him to church and communion, leading to an ambiguous flashback (the film's finest moment) of Jean-Do touring the Catholic tourist trap Lourdes.
Bauby must have done something right by the Virgin Mary. He's surrounded by devoted women who chant letters endlessly to encourage his self-expression. Onscreen we see reveries, a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, an iceberg calving its ice, Marlon Brando in his guru makeup from Candy. And the point is that those who endure life-threatening illnesses will wish they'd been nicer to their wives and kids.
Or live-in, in this case. Emmanuelle Seigner plays the lady who mothered Jean-Do's three children, and whom he left for his mistress. Seigner's I-was-just-rogered-five-minutes-ago look is, as always, enrapturing, and Max von Sydow's small part as Bauby's father has fierce dignity and affection.
Otherwise, this movie is a hymn to convalescence. In this, his third story in a row of a moribund artist, Schnabel persists in a sequence of druggy images, exploring not depths but shallows.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (PG-13; 119 min.), starring Mathieu Amalric, Marie-Josee Croze, Emmanuelle Signer and Max von Sydow and directed by Julian Schnabel, shows at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.
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