I’ve never thought very highly of the paintings of Julian Schnabel, finding them glib, terribly obvious, and even for New York, commercially opportunistic. He was of course the next big thing in the New York art world for a period of time, so God bless him. Naturally I had low expectations for, and in fact was hoping to detest his film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY several years ago when it came out. But I didn’t. I thought it was quite beautiful and fully entrancing.
Schnabel made the film in France, and given that it is based on the true story of a former editor of ELLE, it made sense. Still, it’s hard to imagine a film which relies mostly on over-narration about a man who has had a catastrophic stroke learning to communicate through the blinking of his single functioning eye, and eventually dictating a memoir in such a fashion, receiving financing, in fact, receiving anything but derisive catcalls when it is pitched in the United States (perhaps it did). Though the rights to the book were purchased by an American studio, the studio sold it off to a French production company.
There are several lessons one can take from the film, and the first would be something along the lines that if you’re looking for a film of this kind, expect to watch it with subtitles. It’s not news that the European view of movies and attraction to them as a higher art form, and the prevailing American acceptance of them as product and Friday night diversion (not that there’s anything wrong with that) remain at odds. If the conclusion has to be as reductive as that Europeans are pretentious and Americans are hopelessly prosaic, put me in the European corner I suppose. If a level of cultural pretention is what is required to countenance the sort of rewards a film such as this brings, then I’m willing to own it.
Another convincing lesson surely is that almost any piece of writing can be adapted, if the screenwriter and/or director are ingenious and imaginative enough. The challenges of bringing such a story to the cinema are so daunting it’s surprising anyone would even try. Movies about writing are notoriously tedious anyhow because there isn’t anything to show, and what can be shown generally requires a hamming up so awful the result is gruesome, or so distancing it isn’t even worth the trouble. In this case, the “writer” is dictating to a stenographer with the blinks of an eye, the number of blinks corresponding to letters of the alphabet.
This process itself comprises only a small portion of the actual film, the narrative jumping in time according to moments in the memoir as Jean-Dominique Bauby recalls them, along with the visual representations of his thoughts and imaginings as he lay confined to nothing more than his own mind, his only active connection to the world his blinking eye. Of course, the rendering of the process of his realization of his true condition after waking up in a hospital bed has its own fascination. And the deftness with which Schnabel conveys the process through which Bauby learns his unique form of expression is remarkable.
The condition in which Bauby found himself is remarkably rare. It is called Locked-in Syndrome, and occurs when a massive stroke renders one entirely paralyzed, including the muscles controlling the eyes. However, the brain’s ability to think is left entirely untouched, leaving the victim literally “locked in.” In Bauby’s case, the one small miracle in his favor was the unaffected functioning of one of his eyes.
Perhaps only a painter could visually depict the inner life and the imagination cinematically with such compelling vividness and virtuosity. The film creates its own world: subdued, contemplative, dreamy, surreal and lovely. Through this contemplative painterliness comes the third lesson of the film, which has nothing to do with film world reality or the making of films. Rather, it is the lesson of the central theme, which is not simply the aphorism that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the degree to which one’s life is lived entirely in the mind, the richness and fecundity of that life. One should never underestimate the possibilities and nearly limitless power of consciousness and imagination.
Simply in filmic terms the movie is a marvel of visual and aural stimulation and aesthetic luxury, provoking as much emotional pleasure as somber thought, with its integration of music, photography and narrative ingenuity.
Foremost, the movie is likely to cause you to reflect with appreciation on the richness and importance of your inner life, which normally, and perhaps for good reason one takes minimal account. For good or for ill, it is simply there. Or perhaps it’s not. A rueful and secondary implication in the film is the converse of the fulsome inner life, which is how hollow and vacant the absence of an active inner life must be.
It relates in a very discernible sense to the observations of the French writer and philosopher Blaise Pascal in his major work, PENSEES. He identifies with utter incisiveness and undeniable pitilessness, a truism of the human condition, which is the degree to which humans are driven to constant motion out of their fear of what they would confront, or find lacking inwardly in the cessation of movement or distraction, what they may encounter in stillness or silence. In other words, one should feel fortunate if not so condemned to a thoroughly externalized life; or for lack of a better phrase, an incessantly connected or unremittingly active life.
In Pacal’s words:
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea, or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.