Tuesday, March 24, 2009

the diving bell and the butterfly, by julian schnabel

So here's this week's Film Club pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Netflix summarizes it thusly:

"In 1995, author and Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke that put him in a coma; he awakened mute and completely paralyzed. Mathieu Amalric stars in this adaptation of Bauby's autobiography, which he dictated by blinking."

That should maybe have a spoiler warning on it, since these two sentences encapsulate the central narrative arc of the film, from beginning to end. (The movie fleshes out its run-time with some stuff about Bauby's relationship with his wife, mistress, father, children, and friends, but the dictation of the book is the strongest through-line, and the one granted the most classical resolution.)

So, even if you only know that much, you essentially know the entire story. And then Netflix's summary goes on, revealing the film's theme and overall tenor: something about it being a "poignant film about the strength of the human spirit." This doesn't really constitute an additional spoiler because "the strength of the human spirit" is a cliche, and if we're going to be watching a film about a paralyzed guy who writes a memoir by blinking, the only way it's not going to be about the strength of the human spirit is if it's made by the Kids in the Hall.

None of this is to call out the poor Netflix synopsis-writers; I'm sure they have more serious things to worry about. It's to make the point that this film faces a real dilemma at the outset. We know how the story ends, and we know that the central thematic motif of that story is, well, "shopworn" is putting it kindly. So the challenge becomes: how can you take a film that in synopsis sounds like a Lifetime TV movie and pitch it to an art-house audience—an audience that (at least theoretically) is supposed to be more adventurous in its narrative and thematic tastes?

Well, the film's French, which probably helps.

But to find a more serious answer, we have to turn to an appreciation of the film's craft. Having been trained as a fiction-writer, I often approach films from the perspective of analyzing what works and what doesn't in the film's narrative. But the director of Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, is trained as a painter, and so a more appropriate method might be to try to appreciate the film's "painterly" qualities. In this regard, the film is not a series of stale cliches, but rather a smashing success, especially in its opening scenes, which masterfully manipulate focal depth, color, and light:

There's something else that Schnabel does from a craft perspective, and it involves an exceptionally canny control over the usage of point-of-view, at least for the first third of the film. Bear with me for a minute while I explicate...

After his stroke, protagonist Bauby suffers from something they refer to in the film as "locked-in syndrome." Schnabel perceives a relationship between locked-in syndrome and cinematic spectation: like Bauby, we, the film's viewers, can perceive things, but are prohibited from interacting with them. To cement this relationship, Schnabel chooses to present the majority of the early portion of the film in first-person POV shots.

This sort of extended use of the first-person POV has been experimented with in the past rather dubiously— see: Lady in the Lake (1942) —but that was a film which promised to put you "in the action," which feels awkward in a passive medium like the cinema (it works great in an interactive medium like video games, though not when those video games are translated back into first-person film experiments). Schnabel's film, in effect, promises the opposite: it puts you in "the inaction," which works surprisingly well (perhaps most viscerally in a striking, memorable sequence in which Bauby has his right eye sewn shut to prevent infection).

Schnabel cheats a little, breaking from a strictly naturalistic POV by using effects like jump cuts (which could arguably be said to have a rough analogue in the way our vision works, but it'd be a stretch), and by bringing people so unnaturally close that they'd practically have to be bumping noses with Bauby. This is maybe plausible when it's his wife:

...but a bit less believable when it's his doctor:

These deviations have their effect, though: they contribute to an overall sense of disorientation and invasive presence, both of which help to get the viewer into Bauby's head (and body) better than a strict adherence to first-person POV might have done on its own.

Eventually, the film quietly begins to move us out of the subjective POV and into an objective, third-person POV. We start getting shots like this:

...which increase in both frequency and duration throughout the first third of the film. As a viewer, attuning yourself to your consciousness' flow into and out of Bauby's body is an odd experience: it is as though you are some kind of restless spirit. Adding to this are the moves into and out of memories (via flashbacks) and into and out of Bauby's imagination (via fantasy sequences)—it's safe to say that the film strives to get its audience to be aware of itself as a living perceptual apparatus, which is a damn sight more interesting than getting its audience to be aware of the "strength of the human spirit." It's also a generous approach to filmmaking, one that—at its (unsustained) best—invites comparison to avant-garde work which goes further with drawing attention to the audience's status as perceptual agents (Stan Brakhage's work is the best example I can summon to mind).

Schnabel shouldn't be faulted for not making an avant-garde film, though, especially when he's able to use his manipulation of POV for such striking narrative effects. One notable effect is that Schnabel navigates us through over a third of the film before we ever get to see what our protagonist looks like, in the present—this is something that most films, of course, provide within the first few minutes. By the point where we finally get an unobstructed view of his face we've already become familiar with him as a lively, handsome man in flashbacks and fantasies, and seeing him with the distorted features of the stroke victim comes as a vivid shock, even if you're expecting it. At this moment—which essentially constitutes the "turning point" that most films put at the end of their first act—the film chooses to move us suddenly outside the consciousness of Bauby himself, and abruptly into the consciousness of someone who knows him from before and is experiencing the shock of seeing him transformed. (It fits, not least because the middle third of the film is largely occupied with the changing relationship between Bauby and his network of loved ones.)

So. As a story, not that compelling, but it's a finely-wrought piece of cinematic art. This might lead to an interesting follow-up question—something about the decision to transform someone else's suffering / disability into a beautiful aesthetic object?—but let's hold off on that until next week, when we look at a very different portrayal of disability, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971).


dreamyme said...

overall comment: You have described both it's beauty and what annoyed me about it, Nicely put!
picky comment: She isn't his wife she's the mother of his children.
comment about nothing in particular (made because I felt compelled to make the picky comment despite feeling it was obnoxious to do ao and don't want to end there): I'm thinking of something fun to send you in thanks for your help getting me the next film.

jpb said...

Do we get the sense that they were formerly married?

Next film is in the mail as of today.

dreamyme said...

No. Nurse calls her his wife but he disputes it refering to her as mother of his children but not wife. Then his father says that he should have married her since that would have made it harder for him to leave her.

dreamyme said...

...he was a cad. You on the otherhand are not-Thank you for the movie.