Thursday, January 17, 2008

IT'S ART IF I SAY SO!, or, Why I Want To Kick Julian Schnabel

There are some major issues that must be addressed concerning Julian Schnabel’s highly acclaimed new film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. With wins for Best Director coming from Cannes and the infinitely more mainstream Golden Globes, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly looks to be a crossover hit from the festival circuit. “Foreign” films that play well at Cannes never seem to be international “hits” in the United States (note specifically 4 Months 3 Week and 2 Days and Persepolis failing to make the Oscar shortlist) so maybe something is to be said for Schnabel, an American painter/filmmaker, making such an utterly French film with a universal message that has led to the appeal of such a film in the minds of critics and the public. However, having seen the film twice now, I have to pose the question, what in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are people responding to? Is it merely the “inventive” cinematography displayed in the film’s successful first half hour? Is it the story of Jean Dominique Bauby’s “overcoming” of his situation that people attach to? What, then, is to be said for the character of Bauby that Schnabel and his screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, present us with? All I have read on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has done everything it can to simplify Bauby’s story as one of an unimaginable circumstance, making something out of it, and they applaud Schnabel’s ability to make Bauby’s “locked-in syndrome” the human condition. The film has been called “uncompromising”, “a masterpiece of sensual cinema”, “inspiring”, “emotionally charged”, it “salutes the firepower of imagination”, and “is the life force at its most insistent, lashing out against fate with stubborn resolve.” Once the film is observed closely, however, the issues quickly become confounded and illustrate why The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a negligent, irritating, and problematic experience.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the true story of Elle Magazine editor, Jean Dominique Bauby, who has a stroke and is completely paralyzed except for his eyes and retains complete brain function. The film’s first half hour is without a doubt its strongest. With the camera being used as Bauby’s eyes, there is a first person account of the confusion and terror that comes with the realization that modes of communication are completely gone. Although the blurry imagery, inner dialogue, and swaying camera quickly become passe, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly establishes its difficult premise with an overly stylized ease. Just as its visual “dynamics” are cemented, Bauby has a pessimistic attitude that is the root of many of the problems later in the film. However, in the opening sequences, his feelings toward his situation are understandable. When a doctor tells Bauby to think of him as a friend, Bauby responds, “just be a doctor” and, later, when the doctor tells him that Bauby should be able to continue with this way of life, Bauby retorts with the questions “This is life?” and asks for “please no miracles.” Starting out with this pessimistic attitude is what is expected and, indeed, it is highly likely that this material came out of the real-life Bauby’s memoir. It is shortly after these responses that Schnabel shifts away from Bauby’s perspective and uses the metaphor of the diving bell trapped and, literally, locked-in underwater.

It is here that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins to veer from its provocative opening. Bauby opens his eyes to discover two new doctors, Henriette and Marie. Marie is focused on Bauby’s movement while Henriette has come up with Bauby’s alphabet and they ket to his immediate communication with others and ultimately, the way Bauby dictates his book. It could be argued that the beautiful doctors are what help lift Bauby’s spirits, as Bauby comically thinks “am I in heaven?” when he opens his eyes to see the beauties. Henriette tells Bauby that he is the most important job she has ever received and is determined to succeed. Though his sex drive and wit and apparently active, Bauby’s pessimism persists upon introduction to his soon to be “life-changing” alphabet. When Henriette introduces this new means of communication, Bauby merely thinks “good for you” and refuses to think that it will work. He would rather be left alone to die. From this moment on, everything about the film’s emotions, stylization, and basic storytelling is incredibly forced and works to restrain what could have been a riveting film experience.

While there are some important scenes early on that have not been mentioned (specifically a scene in which a friend compares his being held hostage to Bauby’s situation and tells him to cling to what makes him human), the scene where Henriette introduces the alphabet and what ensues illustrate what is Bauby’s attitude throughout and a major weakness in the development of his character. After he tells Henriette he wants to die, Henriette, rightfully, tells him that it is very disrespectful to think that given the amount of people who care about him. Henriette leaves the room and quickly comes back and apologizes for being out of line. With all the internal dialogue of Bauby’s that is heard, there is little remorse coming from Bauby for what he had done. Suddenly though, there is the diving bell with its arm spread like Christ and Bauby talking about how he will stop pitying himself and begin to rely on his imagination and memory to make him human again.

Where is the turning point for the Bauby character? It feels like Schnabel and Harwood know that the change must come in Bauby’s attitude for the film to gain its resonance, yet it all feels very sudden. Although Bauby tells Henriette “thanks” for her help, it seems like Bauby is responding to the tears. Maybe he decided he did not want to let Henriette down, but does it take this woman crying over him to make him want to persist? Why does it seem like Bauby is manipulating every woman he comes into contact with? Bauby’s character is constantly thinking about sleeping with the various nurses, his wife, and his mistress. When he says that “disaster made him find his true nature,” what nature is he talking about? His nature of wanting to sleep with every woman he comes in contact with? The nature where he makes the mother of his children, who has been with him constantly, leave the room when his mistress, who refuses to see him in that state, calls? Bauby needs to make an elemental change in attitude for the film’s life affirming status to be comprehensible. However, when Bauby says that disaster makes him find his true nature, there is no noticeable difference in the way he acts or feels. There is a flashback of a trip Bauby took to Lourdes where he is asked to buy a Madonna statue. Later, after his stroke and assertion to not pity himself, he returns to Lourdes with the same amount of resentment and claims that the prayers will not work. Whether Bauby has decided to be religious or not is not the question. His fundamental attitude towards life has remained the same. His attitude throughout the last half of the film often times seems more upbeat, but why then does he bemoan the prayers of monks and their unremarkable results? Why does he pick out the most pessimistic section of his favorite novel “The Count of Monte Cristo,” be read to him on a boat?

While these fundamental flaws are rampant, it has to be mentioned that the performances and direction are so sure handed that it masks many of these issues based on pure emotional response. Mathieu Amalric manages to make Bauby’s “locked-in” character very much alive and infinitely charming. There is a brief scene of the pre-locked in Bauby strolling through an Elle photo shoot with confidence and grace that collides with the pessimistic attitude in his afflicted condition. Max Von Sydow plays Bauby’s father, Papinou, who you would swear has a crucial role to the film although he is only in two essentially unnecessary scenes, yet both scenes are executed so well that they are crucially poignant. Schnabel has said that the film was a way for him to deal with all he went through while his own father was dying. It could be for this reason that the scenes between father and son ring so true while the rest of the film never approaches the power of those scenes. If Schnabel were able to take a step back and see how strained The Diving Bell and the Butterfly becomes by the time it reaches its ineffective conclusion, the problematic aspects could have easily been turned into gold by a less arrogant director. But maybe it is this arrogant, unbending version of Bauby that Schnabel creates that can be seen as a Christ-like figure in his mind and his film.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly likes to talk about imagination and repetition. Bauby mentions several times that his imagination is what helped set him free. Hopefully more imagination is found in the late author’s novel than in the version presented in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The story of the real life Bauby is a remarkable one, and this article in no way has meant to condemn the man, complain about his lack of a character arc, and to make the assertion that the disaster of his life did nothing for him. It is just for those reasons that Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an unfitting film for this tale of survival, communication, and imagination. If the Bauby presented is less concerned with his imagination and communication than with complaining about the people who love him and letting beautiful women fight over him (all this aside from feelings, emotions, and imagination seeming forced and false) then all that Scnabel has created is a crashing iceberg that can never be pieced back together.

by James Hansen

4 comments:

Brandon Colvin said...

I haven't seen the film. That being said, it seems like you expected too much out of a man who can't move. Honestly, why would he not be an asshole to people he loved? I would. If I couldn't move, I would be very alienated and very jealous and very hateful. Also, I'm sure I would fantasize about sex constantly since I couldn't even masturbate. The character's change seems more to be about having the courage to try and press on, even if not totally satisfied or at peace. I don't know, just preliminary thoughts upon reading your review.

James Hansen said...

My problem comes in that they use so much voice over to present the change in him that it could have easily been fixed. I don't think he hates the people around him. It makes sense to be alienated, but he says that he has changed and will press on (in the script) but he never shows a change I don't think. I dunno...I don't think it's awful or anything but what they present is really problematic for me. If the only thing he learns is that he should blink because there are hot chicks who will like him...I don't get all the raves.

Thanks for the comments. I am really open to some discourse on this one, especially when you get a chance to see it.

jacob shoaf said...

Okay, I just saw Diving Bell and I really like/love it (still torn on the rating). As far as the Bauby's character change is concerned, I think he could have legitimately changed his attitude, but who's to say that he would stay in that optimistic mindset from then on out. Vegetable that he is, he still possesses emotions which are capable of fluctuating. And how awesome is von Sydow? That man can amaze me in three languages.

Chuck Williamson said...

I actually watched this film last weekend and had a similar experience. There seems to be a great deal of cognitive dissonance between the film's mixing of two diametrically opposed cinematic modes—specifically mainstream melodrama and art-house tone poem. I certainly didn’t hate it—but I was a little perplexed about all of the accolades. With that said, I should also point out that I totally agree with James that the film has trouble reconciling its life-affirming message-making conveyed through voiceover and on-screen pessimism/defeatism of Bauby’s struggle. Certainly, Schnabel trips over himself attempting to visualize Bauby’s internal tensions and psychic traumas, but at times he seems to get lost in his own cinematic pyrotechnics and forgets to create a convincing character arc. This isn’t a complaint about static characterization—heck, I might have been happier with the film if he did not change and stayed a pessimistic ass all movie. What I do have a problem with, however, is that the film purportedly documents this redemptive transformation and yet fails to do so in a coherent and/or convincing way.

The parts of the film that really worked for me—the claustrophobic opening, the dream sequences, the elegant montages—only pulled me in because of a superficial aesthetic appreciation. If the film wanted to be nothing but a formal exercise, beautiful and empty, I might have enjoyed it more. However, as it also wants to cavort about as an uplifting, triumph-of-the-spirit story, the film fails to catch my interest and comes across as irredeemably hollow.

Ironically, I watched this movie the same week I watched Away From Her, and while that movie lacked the visual panache of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I found it infinitely more complex, sincere, and genuinely moving—and, of course, its stripped down elegance goes unnoticed while everyone lauds Schnabel’s sound and fury. Sometimes, I hate Hollywood.