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MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Grabbing you immediately, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins blurred and mysterious. As the film comes into focus, so does the main character: we are seeing the world through the eyes of a person who is waking up in a hospital. For 15 minutes, we see what he sees: doctors peering at us, the blurred shadows in the back of the room, blinding daylight from the window. We even witness one of “our” eyes being sewn shut because “we” can’t blink it to keep it healthy.

The doctors tell us that we have suffered a stroke and that we now have “locked-in” syndrome. We can’t move a muscle (save for our left eye) and we can’t speak, but our mind works just fine. This last bit of information we know from the voiceover: we are Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric).

An Eye for Art

A cast of beautiful women (like Marie-Josée Croze) play Bauby's nurses and therapists
A cast of beautiful women (like Marie-Josée Croze) play Bauby’s nurses and therapists

The story (based on the book by the real-life Bauby) is vaguely like The Miracle Worker or My Left Foot; it’s about human tenacity, living with an incredible handicap, and choosing a difficult and painful life over the reassuring comfort of self-pity. Thankfully an artist, Julian Schnabel, is at the helm, rather than a cheerleader; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is beautiful and powerful, rather than schmaltzy and “uplifting.” That’s not to say that Schnabel is bleak or grim. He believes in life and hope. He also acknowledges that those qualities sometimes require sacrifice and dedication, not mere optimism.

The performance by Amalric seems pretty demanding at first. His face is always locked in a wince, and he can only use one muscle (at least in the main timeline). But at that point the “performance” is more in the hands of the director, the photographer, and the editor. Cutaways, framing, and blocking have more to do with the “performance” than the acting. Amalric is joined by a cast of beautiful women (Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Joseé Croze, Anne Consigny) playing Bauby’s lover and nurses.

The gripping story would probably make a good movie, no matter the director. But Schabel’s talent as a visual artist (Schanbel is also a renowned painter) makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly outstanding. The movie includes some purely filmic metaphors, including a diving bell and several butterflies. “Jean-Do” — not Schnabel nor screenwriter Ronald Harwood — chose the title to describe his condition. On the one hand, his body is a human-shaped suit dragging him to the bottom of a deep ocean. On the other hand, his rich mental life allows him to leave the useless husk of his body and take flight all over the world.

More interestingly, Schnabel uses the image of a glacier calving and dropping giant masses of ice into ocean (played again over the credits in reverse). I can’t pin a simple metaphor to the image — it’s not as simple as “the ice represents his consciousness.” But it’s a deeply emotional fit: the unstoppable laws of physics and nature, the image of something so massive and momentous that no human action can resist it, something sad — a loss rather than a reunion.

Perhaps that’s the power poetry over prose (or film-as-art over film-as-storytelling): it can evoke as well as invoke.

DVD Extras

The Extras on this Miramax DVD are informative and well-chosen. There is a making-of featurette that includes talking heads recounting interesting anecdotes. It’s 12 minutes of interesting, substantive stuff, particularly the interviews with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Steven Spielberg’s go-to guy).

There’s also a segment from Charlie Rose with Julian Schnabel. I wish Rose had more time to go into more depth. Their interview is a good introduction, but what they cover overlaps with some of the stories on the other DVD extras.

Finally, there is a very slow audio commentary with Julian Schnabel. Schnabel sounds like he’s in a trance, and his flat voice might well put you to sleep, which is too bad because what he has to say is actually fairly interesting. Where most commentaries devolve into vapid remarks about meaningless details, Schnabel stays sharp, even if his voice gets dull. Some of the more interesting factoids are:

Amalric could watch the first-person performances of the other actors through the eye of the camera. He would be in a nearby sound-proof room, and he was encouraged to react out loud, into a microphone. His reactions were recorded and used as voiceover. Further, his reactions were broadcast to the headphones of the cinematographer, who could react to these “internal thoughts” by pointing the eye of the camera somewhere else.

Marie Josee Croze and Mathieu Amalric both starred in Munich, which was shot by Janusz Kaminski.

Schanbel was interested in directing the movie adaptation of Perfume (Tom Tykwer directed it instead). Schnabel saw some parallels between the protagonist of Perfume and Bauby. His idea of the calving glaciers was inspired by the protagonist of Perfume.

Schnabel describes the glaciers running in reverse over the credits as Bauby coming back together, of him becoming part of everything again, because his life had finally transcended mere life and became a work of art. A minute later, Schanbel says “I don’t know what the glaciers mean, really, but they’re the key to the film for me.”

Picture and Sound

The picture quality is gorgeous, of course. Schnabel, a painter, was not likely to settle for anything less. The widescreen transfer is impeccable. That this title — which was nominated for an Academy Award for best cinematography — is released on DVD but not Blu-Ray is a sure sign that Blu-Ray, as of April 2008, is still a novelty and not worth investing in if your tastes run deeper than Pirates of the Caribbean.