The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Julian Schnabel

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Julian Schnabel
Sympathy from outsiders can take strange forms. Here, notably able-bodied artist Julian Schnabel takes on a phenomenon he can’t possibly know from the inside: "locked-in syndrome,” the near-total immobility that Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby endured when he suffered a stroke and found himself left with only one eyelid as a means communication.

Bauby’s autobiography serves as the basis for the movie, in which Schnabel tries in various formalist ways to suggest the imprisonment of the syndrome: the camera is often immobile as people walk in and out of his point of view, the focus shifts to suggest inadequate peripheral vision and voiceovers express Bauby’s powerlessness as people assume to speak for, or in sympathy with, someone whose plight they can’t possibly comprehend.

It’s a heroic task, and it sometimes comes off, but the director takes these structural representations of overwhelming disability and then tacks on poetry that doesn’t belong. It’s not that you couldn’t apply poetry, but the stuff on offer here is sometimes not credible and just as often not relevant, imposing the director on the material in ways where he should plain and simply back off. As well, it doesn’t help that every woman in Bauby’s life stands in the wings looking hot — though Bauby proves to be a philanderer, it doesn’t jack up the film’s credibility to reduce the female characters so completely.

Kings and Queen live-wire Matheiu Almaric is as good as can be expected in a confining role, and one can’t say that there isn’t a lot of craft and sympathy in Schnabel’s attempt to translate his subject’s POV to filmic terms. But there’s something presumptive about his subject positioning that rubs the wrong way, and I imagine this film will be debated by disability activists for some time to come. (Alliance Atlantis)