The Nerve and the Will
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film directed by Julian Schnabel
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt
Vintage, 132 pp., $12.95 (paper)
C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maitre D's & Other Excerpts from Life
by Julian Schnabel
Random House, 222 pp. (1987)
For those of us who have followed Julian Schnabel's larger-than-life career as an artist for nearly thirty years, watching his new movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a doubly extraordinary experience. It is a film that presents a nightmarish and almost unbearable medical case history that has been handled with humor, a lyrical deftness, and a remarkable absence of sentimentality; and if you have more than a passing sense of Schnabel the person and his work as a painter, your mind is running at the same time on a parallel track, one full of amazement and almost disbelief that, with no apparent training in theater arts or the directing of actors, or even a feeling for photography, he has turned himself into a sometime moviemaker—this is his third film—of such drive and sensitivity. The movie is about a patient's transformation of himself as he lies in a hospital bed; and it has been made by someone who, with a perhaps related kind of strength, is similarly extending himself.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. The editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, Bauby suffered a stroke at the end of 1995, at forty-three, that left him paralyzed from head to toe and able only to use his mind, to hear from one ear (in a muffled way), to move his head a little (with a huge effort), to grunt out the letters of the alphabet (after considerable therapy), and most crucially to see from his left eye and to blink its lid. A victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby learned how to communicate through a collaborative process. As someone read to him letters of the alphabet, he would, through blinking at the letter he needed, spell out words......
Like Basquiat, Schnabel's 1996 film about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Before Night Falls, of 2000, about the exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is first and foremost a crisp, craftsmanly piece of work, stylish to the degree that the material calls for it and always driven by the needs of the story. Each of the movies, furthermore, is about an actual person of real accomplishment who came to an untimely death.
And like The Diving Bell, Schnabel's earlier movies are graced by images of being on, by, or immersed in water. When Basquiat fantasizes about his future he looks up and sees, above the tops of city buildings, a sky that has become one big ocean wave with surfers carving down it. In Before Night Falls, Arenas's moments of wider understanding, whether concerning his artistic identity, his sexuality, or his political freedom, are inseparable from his being, respectively, in the rain, by a river, or diving into the sea....
Before Night Falls, though, was a huge step forward. It, too, presents a person making his way through a distinct social milieu, in this case Castro's
Schnabel is as intimate and down-to-earth about Arenas's life as a homosexual, and about the texture of Hispanic Caribbean culture, as he is about the hospital world Jean-Dominique Bauby inhabits. But Before Night Falls is a richer and deeper movie than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It encompasses grittier and more tumultuous experiences and revolves around a person (played by Javier Bardem without, it seems, a false moment) who grows as we watch from a cautious kid to a lovely young man and then finally to a self-assured and hardly cautious lover and writer whose refusal to conform leads to imprisonment and torture.