Filmmaker and painter Julian Schnabel has a thing for shining light on artists who yearned to break free, creative types imprisoned by some sort of stifling restraint.
In his 1996 debut "Basquiat," he dramatized how his good buddy Jean-Michel Basquiat (played by Jeffrey Wright) was a misunderstood, exploited virtuoso whose fame became a chokehold he escaped via a 1988 drug overdose. Schnabel's 2000 follow-up "Before Night Falls" chronicled Javier Bardem's performance as gay Cuban poet/novelist Reinaldo Arenas, from his impoverished beginnings to his Castro-sanctioned persecution and imprisonment.
In his newest, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Schnabel documents the last days of a man who was literally trapped inside his own body.
Just like "Basquiat" and "Falls," "Butterfly" is another true story of a tortured artistic soul. The movie begins with bon vivant fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) waking up from a stroke, a stroke that has left him in a condition known as "locked-in syndrome." This syndrome has paralyzed him to the point where the only thing that moves on his body is his left eyelid.
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With the aid of a determined speech therapist (Naomi Watts look-alike Marie Josee-Croze), Bauby manages to communicate through that eyelid. He even gets the idea to write his memoirs (upon which the movie is based), hiring an assistant (Anne Consigny) to dictate what it's like to have a mind that's healthy and a body that's not.
"Butterfly" and Schnabel win some points for audacity by locking the audience into Bauby's head. For the first half of the movie, we view the surroundings from his dazed, limited perspective while he keeps a cranky, internal monologue going, virtually to stay sane. (This is where Janusz Kaminski's cinematography really shimmers.)
Of course, it doesn't stay this way, as we go outside Bauby's body in the second half, catching Amalric in mobile and immobile mode. (He's quite apt at both.) This is so we can also see Bauby interact with family and friends, which includes Emmanuelle Seigner as his still-loyal ex-wife, Isaach De Bankole as a longtime buddy and Max von Sydow as Bauby's homebound dad. A flashback scene where Amalric comes to von Sydow's home to shave the old man and get the occasional pearl of wisdom has got to be one of most convincing instances of father-son bonding I've seen in a film.
No doubt, "Butterfly" is an emotional experience. The script, by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist"), will indeed give you plenty of opportunities to pull out tissues and get your eye-dab on. Sometimes, Schnabel gets wrapped up in the emotion himself, injecting sequences of mad, abstract wondrousness to show how Bauby's imagination still buzzes with spiritedness and potency. But after a while, it seems like overkill. As always, it's the quieter, genuine moments -- like the shaving scene -- that have the most impact.
Sure, you could be a cynical cuss and easily dismiss the movie as "My Left Eye," which I did immediately after I saw it. (Hey, I couldn't help myself!) But, for the most part, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is competent and elegantly made. Even if it doesn't completely goose you into taking life by the behind and biting a big chunk out of it, it's still a deathbed movie you wouldn't mind being seen getting misty-eyed at.