Painter Julian Schnabel was the consummate big-money art star of the profligate 1980s. His massive, neo-expressionist paintings, which incorporated brash slashes of paint and shards of crockery, typified a flair for showmanship that matched up well in an era of big gestures and bigger egos.
Schnabel turned to filmmaking with Basquiat (1996), a film that dramatized the rapid rise and sad plunge of downtown New York artist (and fellow '80s enfant terrible) Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Against all expectations for those used to his showy, chest-beating paintings, Schnabel proved himself a filmmaker of surprising restraint. Schnabel's films have tended to deal with the singular, often isolating nature of creativity. That became true in his adaptation of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' autobiography Before Night Falls (2000). It's even more true for his latest film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which earned him the directing prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and, despite its tendency to stray into the pedestrian triumph-over-adversity genre, is Schnabel's most satisfying and cinematic work to date.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who collected beautiful women, consorted with fashion designers and rock stars, and sped his jaunty convertible through Parisian boulevards. Bauby's life changed forever at age 43 when a stroke left him almost completely paralyzed. It was only through a still-functioning left eyelid that he was able to communicate and eventually dictate a memoir of his experience through a Morse code of blinks.
Schnabel renders Bauby's thoughts as voice-over, allowing the viewer to share his head space in the midst of a hospital full of caregivers and visitors oblivious to his sparks of wicked humor, rage and sadness.
The movie's opening scenes are excruciating, as Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski convey the slowly dawning horror of Bauby's situation. Bauby laboriously lifts an eyelid and views his hovering doctors through a filmy scrim. In a scene of ocular trauma to rival the sliced eyeball in Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, we watch from Bauby's point of view as his damaged right eye is slowly stitched closed. One more contact with the world closes down. It was clearly for those early moments – in which the viewer assumes Bauby's perspective at its most intimate – that Schnabel won the Cannes award. In many ways, Bauby's perspective is inherently cinematic; it echoes our own circumstance, trapped within our seats and afforded the same limited view of the world.
Casting his own sultry wife (Olatz Lopez Garmendia) as Bauby's physical therapist and the equally striking Marie-Josée Croze as his speech therapist, Schnabel emphasizes the sexual frustration of Bauby's already tortuous predicament. Bauby is surrounded by a candy box of beautiful, patient, nurturing girlfriends (including the engaging Emmanuelle Seigner), secretaries (lovely Anne Consigny) and therapists who form a dream team of feminine virtue. They pray for him, minister to his every need and love him unconditionally but lie beyond his grasp. Schnabel sanctifies the traditional female roles of caretaker and muse, but these comely Florence Nightingales' ceaseless devotion may interfere with some female viewers' rapture in the film.
It is nevertheless a testament to Schnabel's skill and the power of metaphor that he was able to fabricate a film of such universal relevance from the life of a man whose situation was unique.
If Bauby's leaden body is the diving bell of the film's title, then his mind and imagination are the butterfly. His spirit is capable of soaring free in spite of his physical limitations. Bauby is not unlike an expressionist painter who also struggles to render an inner voice. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is undeniably a film made from the point of view of an artist, a coalescing of Schnabel the filmmaker and Schnabel the artist in its declaration of faith in the interior, imaginative self.