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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Massive Stroke

Paralysis to motion picture?

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Flickering and uncertain, Jean- Dominique’s vision comes gradually into focus, colors alternating with wavering images of doctors and nurses. He hears them speaking but realizes they can hear none of the words he tries to form. Like the character in the Poe story that awakens in a coffin, buried alive, a horrible awareness seizes Jean- Dominique. He is paralyzed from head to foot, unable to move anything but his eyelids, fully conscious but imprisoned in the immobile shell his body has become.

Julian Schnabel’s latest film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is based on the best seller by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who edited the French Elle magazine until unaccountably suffering a massive stroke. Schnabel’s shift to filmmaking since his palmy days as a lucrative painter during the booming 1980s art market has guaranteed a certain cachet for films that are interesting topically but fall short of great cinema. Like his previous movies, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell is an imaginative recreation of a real-life creative person— an artist isolated by drugs (Basquiat), sexual orientation (Before Night Falls) or paralysis (The Diving Bell) from the society around him.

Being imaginative, however, isn’t the same as being compelling. The world Jean-Dominique awakens into is terrible in its frozen monotony, relieved only when he develops a laborious process of dictating the book that became the basis for this film. Much of The Diving Bell’s first half is also monotonous, with the world seen only from Jean-Dominique’s one good eye and interpreted through his understandably grumpy internal monologues. The tedium is eased only slightly as Schnabel gradually expands the film’s visual perspective to include short flashbacks and eventually the world around the stricken editor.

Schnabel’s cinematic style is glum if carefully composed, yet the message of his story manages to be inspiring without a trace of sentimentality. Despite the measured words of his physicians, Jean- Dominique has little confidence in medical science beyond the work of a sympathetic speech therapist who teaches him to communicate; and despite the prayers of family and friends, religion offers him no consolation. What sustains Jean- Dominique is a visit from a friend to whom—in a seemingly random act—he once surrendered his airline seat, only to feel guilt when the plane was hijacked and the friend imprisoned under terrible conditions in Beirut. “Hold fast to the human inside of you and you will survive,” the friend counsels.

The performance by French actor Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique is painful to watch. Once the film’s field of vision expands beyond the protagonist’s point of view, we see a man with a drooping lip, a waxen face, one eye occluded by a dark lens and the other eyeball darting anxiously. Max von Sydow gives a poignant, low-key performance as Jean- Dominique’s father, himself imprisoned by failing health. Transforming The Diving Bell and the Butterfly into a film is a tough assign- ment. Schnabel succeeds in part with the help of an empathetic cast while failing to figure out how to turn paralysis into motion pictures.