Paralysie Francaise

Or shit, it was a dream

by by Alex Verdolini

Directed by Julian Schnabel
[Miramax Films/Pathe Distribution, 114 minutes]

It's not so easy to make a good film out of senseless misfortune, tragedy of the violent, bodily sort—and it's probably even harder to make one about overcoming it. Julian Schnabel tries his hand at both challenges, with rather surprising success, in his The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The film, in French with English subtitles, tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle France who suffered a stroke at 43, leaving him with locked-in syndrome—he could see and hear but couldn't speak or move a muscle, with the exception of his left eyelid. Bauby learned to communicate by blinking; he even managed to dictate a bestselling memoir, whose title the film takes as its own.

Schnabel starts the movie on a brave foot; he seems determined to spare us none of Bauby's suffering. For the first few scenes, we see all the action from the invalid's point of view. The camerawork is sublimely confusing. When he blinks, the screen goes black; when he tears up, it gets blurry. Not too long into the film, a doctor sews his right eye shut to keep away infection. We see a needle piercing his eyelid, just as he would, and it unites us with him in a state of impotent horror and gut-wrenching disgust. When the camera moves to the third person, it comes as a biting revelation: his lower lip is slumped embarrassingly to the side, and he looks, in his words, as though he just "came out of a vat of formaldehyde."
After this marvelously fucked-up opening, the movie wavers between the brilliant and platitudinous. The darker scenes are consistently convincing, and Schnabel effectively weaves strange dreams and murky diving-bell imagery into the fabric of the film. He has a harder time with Bauby's victories over his condition—the matter of the butterfly. Here, his filmmaking falls back on cliché. Bauby says at one point that two things are left to him, "l'imagination et la mémoire." To illustrate this, Schnabel indulges in sweeping aerial shots of Caribbean beaches and a slideshow of childhood photos. To round out the butterfly metaphor, he throws in a couple closeups of insect life; although they're vaguely artsified and out of focus, they struggle not to look like something from National Geographic.

From time to time, a bit of daytime drama-style piano dirge floats in, and in one flashback scene we even watch Bauby walk tragically right down the middle of an empty street in late-night Lourdes. The camera tracks him from, say, 20 feet above and 30 feet behind, trite and quite self-satisfied.
Luckily, these moments are few and fairly far between, and the acting is consistently exquisite. Mathieu Almaric, playing Bauby, manages to squeeze a sort of half-comedic charm out of paralysis. His stream-of-consciousness voiceovers show us what a real triumph might look like: no sweeping revelations, no theatrical leaps of faith, but beneath a cloak of gallows humor a begrudging charity. At one point, Bauby describes a play he wants to write about his struggle with paralysis. In the final scene, he says, the protagonist jumps up out of bed, suddenly cured. "Shit," says the character. "It was a dream."

Max von Sydow, who plays Bauby's father, lends the film two of its most touching moments—in the first, a tasteful flashback, the son shaves his aging father; in the second, Bauby senior sobs on speakerphone as the paralytic dictates his responses in eye-blinks. And the fairly endless cast of female characters share the spotlight well without appearing interchangeable.

The film ends on a high note, artistically speaking. In another flashback, Bauby drives out to his ex's country house to see his son, Théophile. As he drives through Paris, the soundtrack to Truffaut's The 400 Blows comes on, and we get a sequence of nouvelle vague-like shots recalling that film's opening. He picks up Théophile and starts driving again, this time down a little country road. He complains of the heat and declares that it's going to rain, before he speaks his last voiced words: "We could have." The camera jumps, and we watch from the distance as, in a lovely, touching echo of the end of Rififi, Bauby's small convertible ploughs into the side of the road. His son jumps out and sprints off toward the nearest house as the Charles Trenet classic "La Mer" comes on, quaint and reassuring, couched in vinyl crackling.

These subtle, contrapuntal touches prove that Schnabel's come into his talent and found a distinct style. Whatever you think of his paintings (I happen not to mind them too much), it's undeniable that he brings something wonderfully painterly to film.

ALEX VERDOLINI B'11 spends most evenings at Palazzo Chupi, blinking his right eyelid in morse code pillow talk.