Monday, 11 February 2008

the diving bell and the butterfly [d. schnabel]

I've been trying to work out why I found this film so powerful. What it was doing that, so far as I was concerned, made it work so well. I went of a Sunday afternoon, walking across the tracks to Notting Hill, feeling on a beautiful day as though this was a film I ought to be seeing rather than one I had a desperate need to see. It caught me out like a southpaw, I was looking for a soft right, and got whacked with a jackhammer left.

The opening ten minutes are arresting, but also somewhat ennervating. In advance I'd been thinking about Schnabel's 'painterly eye'. The film is indeed beautiful. But this is a rough beauty, in and out of focus, scavenging colour and form. The trouble with beauty in cinema is that it can all too easily leave one cold. Pretty pictures are all very well, but if they are not arresting, then they might as well be ugly. What Schnabel is dealing with is not beauty, but perception.

Which is the source of beauty, in the end. There is a reason Jean Dominique Bauby's book works so well in the hands of a painterly director. Bauby's book, at the end, is a celebration of perception. Once again, (cf Reygadas's Silent Light) there is a metaphor for cinema itself at the heart of the film. Bauby's perception of life mirrors our perception of the film: we observe but cannot participate.

For the opening ten minutes at least. Which is enough to establish our identification with the paralysed protagonist. Later in the film, Bauby says he has two things going for him - imagination and memory. However, with memory comes the knowledge of loss, which is ultimately what makes this film so heart-rending. Bauby has to learn to live with the knowledge of that which he has had and shall never have again. Something we all have to do at some stage in our lives, if not in such dramatic circumstances as the film's protagonist. Likewise, we all use our imagination as an escape valve. Bauby's humanity seems hightened by his catastrophe rather than belittled by it. The distortion between physical frailty and mental fecundity provokes an increased understanding of what it means to be alive in this world.

Mathieu Amalric's performance at the heart of the film breathes life into these ideas. Playing someone afflicted by illness, be that mental or physical, often brings out the star in an actor. Amalric does remarkable things with nothing more than a roving eye, but beyond all this his performance is created by his voice, the inner voice of Bauby. The pitch of a voice often tells more about a performance than anything else. A director cannot tweak a voice, and the actor cannot hide it behind his or her attractiveness or art. The character of Bauby needs the voice to be just right, because this is what reveals his humanity, his sense of self. Amalric's delivery is beautifully weighted, as varied as a Warne over but steady as McGrath. All the humour, cynicism and pathos of the man he portrays is captured, whether you speak French or not.

Again, this voice is an article of perception, both for the speaker, and us, the listener. Schnabel is bold enough to let the voice, over which he has so little control, speak for itself. It's his surprising reticence as a director which allows the film to work. The edits within the film are sharp and unsentimental. The effects are almost always to the benefit of the narrative, as the film flowers from its opening constrained Bauby-eyed view to the tragedy of the final car journey, the one time the camera is truly allowed off the leash as it pirrouetes through a Parisian sky. Schnabel does the simple things well, such as cutting from Bauby to his speech therapist after Bauby's father's final call, allowing the emotion that wells through the scene to be released in her tears.

Finally, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly succeeds not because of its ability to elicit emotion, but through its humour. Humour is a touchstone of common humanity. Bauby is an up-to-the-minute Beckett character, trapped in his physical self. His powerlessness is that of an infant. Yet he retains the ability to find his predicament funny. One of the smartest scenes occurs when a telephone is delivered to his room and the workmen laugh at the man who can't speak being given a telephone. His speech therapist chides them, but Bauby laughs with them.

I'm not sure I've got anywhere near to the root of discovering why this film is so powerful. It is about perception, the notion of humanity, it is beautifully directed, remarkably well acted, it is funny, it's sad, it makes 'em laugh, it makes 'em cry. All this and yet, as with any cinema that really works, the sum is so much greater than the parts. All the critic can do is break the film down into its constituent elements, some of which s/he might get right, some wrong. A modest exploration of something which has been honed and worked over for years. And in this case, it is not just the film which has been worked over, but the book as well. Doubtless, most of the elements of Schnabel's film which make it so powerful are to be found within Bauby's book. Yet the director brings his own eye to that book, he mediates it through his perception. The marriage of Bauby's blinking brilliance and Schnabel's flashy modesty have produced something out of the ordinary.

When I left the cinema day had turned to night. I walked back to my side of the tracks feeling exhausted and alive.

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