This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.
I can't say Julian Schnabel has been a favorite among contemporary painters. Any artist who would proclaim himself "as close to Picasso as you're going to get in this fucking life" is so insufferably arrogant that one wants to dismiss his work before even seeing it. And one finds the paintings easily dismissable: Schnabel's major achievement as a painter was turning the "openness" aesthetic of the great Robert Rauschenberg into kitsch. Rauschenberg profoundly challenged a viewer's sense of perception and meaning. The ordering process of one's mind takes the chaos of the outside world and systematizes what it finds into patterns of associations and meaning. Rauschenberg reconfigured objects and images into groupings that exist outside the mind's systematizing process, and this reordering carries a jolt. It shocks one into a more "open" quality of perception, and it calls one's attention to the beauty of the randomness of everyday experience. Schnabel degraded this into gimmicky rendering techniques, like using fragments of crushed plates to create images on canvas. (Click here for an example.) Like his contemporary Jeff Koons, he's the sort of artist one loves to hate: the only pleasure to be had from his work comes from scoffing at it.
When Schnabel branched out into directing films in the mid-1990s, my disdain for him led me to avoid them. This was despite my interest in the 1980s New York art world depicted in Basquiat (1996), and the acclaim and honors accorded actor Javier Bardem for his work in Before Night Falls (2000). But Schnabel received, among other honors, a Best Director Academy Award nomination for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, even though the film wasn't nominated for Best Picture. I've long observed that a film that gets a directing nomination at the expense of one Best Picture nominee is often better than all of them, so The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, despite my opinion of Schnabel, ended up on my must-see list. And I was more than pleasantly surprised.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is adapted from the short memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. In 1995, Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to speak, and unable to move beyond blinking his left eye. Working with a frequency-alphabet card and a secretary, he dictated the book letter by letter, word by word, by blinking yes when the secretary read the correct letter off the card. The book told of his experiences in his condition (called Locked-In Syndrome) and the joys he found or rediscovered in life. The book was published in March of 1997, ten days before Bauby died of pneumonia.
Schnabel's anything-goes approach to rendering may make his paintings seem gimmicky, but working with story material appears to discipline his imagination. He presents Bauby's narrative in a beautifully poetic and expressive manner. Filmmaking techniques are used expressionistically. The film begins when Bauby (Mathieu Amalric)awakens from his coma, and it takes the point of view of Bauby's good eye. Schnabel, as he does in his paintings, throws everything but the kitchen sink at the task of dramatizing Bauby's awakening and disorientation: the camera pans reflect his eye's movements, and his wooziness is rendered by blurs, superimpositions, and such unusual effects as reflecting light off of water onto the characters. Everything is juxtaposed with Bauby's voiceover on the soundtrack. Bauby is taught to blink once to say yes and twice to say no, and Schnabel uses the flashes of black to create a visual vocabulary from inside Bauby's perspective. The viewer comes to automatically register Bauby's emotional state from the tempo of the blinks, and eventually, one can tell that when the screen blurs Bauby is crying.
Schnabel never belabors his effects. He's consistently inventive, and he builds on his establishment of Bauby's perspective by using it to introduce the viewer to a number of the other characters, including his former partner Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), and his physical therapist Marie (Olatz López Garmendia). Schnabel makes them all distinct by dramatizing Bauby's attitude towards them; the physical therapist, for example, is presented as an object of lust for Bauby: he can hardly look away from her breasts when they first meet, and the therapy session we see makes her seem almost brazenly flirtatious. After about forty minutes, Schnabel moves outside the exclusive perspective of Bauby's eye, and the film then shifts back and forth between Bauby's first-person perspective, third-person objectivity, flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and daydream collages. The picture is often one dazzling visual trope after another.
These wonderfully expressive visuals all grow from a simple, powerfully dramatic story: Bauby, who has lost everything, learns how to regain and redefine his life. The tragic loss of his body leads to the triumphant realization of his soul. Ronald Harwood's script initially presents Bauby as a man who wants to die. One can sympathize: he cannot move or speak, he cannot wash himself, and he's fed through a tube. The story's turning point comes wheh he tells this to his speech therapist. She becomes furious with him, upbraiding him for wanting to so completely turn his back on his friends, his family, and even herself. Shamed by her reaction, he realizes that memory and imagination can provide a lifetime of pleasures, and he's further completed by the joys and pleasures that his love for those in his life can bring. He hits upon writing a book as a way of embracing them all, and exploiting an outstanding contract with a Paris publisher, he gets them to provide a secretary (Anne Consigny) for transcribing his eye-blink dictation. Early on, Bauby despairingly thinks about all the "lost opportunities" taken from him by the stroke; the film is about him getting them back.
The picture has flaws. In a flashback showing the healthy Bauby with his invalid father (Max von Sydow), the father looks into the mirror, and we see the reflection beside a black-and-white picture of Bauby. The half-smile in the photo echoes his paralyzed self's half-frown. The juxtaposition is a far too obvious ironic identification of Bauby's paralysis with his father's condition. And in an absolutely ghastly scene--one completely fabricated for the film--Bauby is sitting with Céline when his girlfriend calls. She refuses to visit because she can't bear to see him in his condition, and Céline is forced to translate his side of the emotional conversation over the phone. Having to translate Bauby's words of affection to the woman who stole him from her--not to mention having to listen to the girlfriend's outpourings in return--Céline ultimately feels compelled to leave the room. One wants to go with her. The scene is an embarrassing, humiliating ordeal for the characters, and it's unbearable. One could also do without the gratuitous homage to the famous eye-slitting scene in Un chien andalou.
But these missteps aside, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an powerful story full of visual wonder. Schnabel redeems himself for those who recoiled during other periods of his career. With this film, he succeeds where his paintings failed. He lives up to Rauschenberg's example. The "openness" aesthetic is brought to narrative filmmaking, and with marvelous success. The film recreates and reconfigures our understanding of the world around us; familiar sights and objects sparkle with the magic of discovery. One can easily imagine the late Rauschenberg beaming his memorable smile after seeing this picture. It's a great film.