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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

March 18, 2008
RATING: 9.7/10
"Art is a utilitarian thing, not a decorative thing."

It is in the trivia section of Julian Schnabel's IMDB profile, under the heading 'Personal Quotes,' where you'll find this solitary glimpse into the mind of the expressionist painter turned film director.

Indeed, taken as a complete palette, Schnabel's short cinematic career shows the indelible mark of purpose and planning, even when the style in which it is created is lush and poetic. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly then is both Schnabel's most beautiful film (and among the more visually compelling/creative films in recent memory) and the American artist's most powerful artistic statement to date; a rapturous ode to the symphony of life, and a deep lament of humanity's inability to communicate, understand and express its own beauty.

Yet the quote is also representative of the director's obsession with "Art" as subject matter - or more precisely, the "Artiste" in all his defiant, self-destructive glory.

In his third film, Schnabel completes a hat trick of male artist biopics that began with the liberalized canonization of controversial Neo-expressionist painter and Andy Warhol protégé Basquiat in 1997, continued with the Cuban poet/novelist Reinaldo Arenas in 2002's Before Night Falls, and now swoops into the mind of French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby, the womanizing editor of Elle magazine, suffered a sudden and inexplicable stroke on a beautiful summer's day in 1995 while driving the countryside - with his young son - in a brand new convertible. After lying comatose in bed for three weeks, Bauby awoke to find himself paralyzed from head to toe, with the exception of his left, blinking eye.

Mathieu Amalric as the paralyzed Jean-Dominique Bauby.

The majority of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is presented through that marvelous and curious gaze. From the distance between him and his children to the tears caught in his lashes, we experience Bauby's journey through the last two years of his life from the crippled author's blurry, skewed point-of-view. Within that lens Schnabel probes the depths of regret and sorrow, the boredom of paralysis, and the heights of flowery passion.

In the film Bauby himself admits he has a tendency to fall into self-pity, and thus much of the story addresses the poor and lonely state of a man suffering from what physicians refer to as Locked-in Syndrome. Yet as he examines himself, Bauby learns much about the world around him. He sees the pain in the faces of his friends, his many past lovers (the myriad of women who now control him) and even complete strangers. In many ways everyone he meets is holding something inside, unable to express their basic humanity - the intrinsic thread, taken for granted, that connects us all and which above all else, is what Bauby is struggling to maintain. From his 92 year-old father, stuck in his apartment from morning to night, to the man who spent 4 years in a Beirut prison, or even Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoléon III, roaming the halls of an infirmary in search of escape - there are people everywhere with whom he connects, and who in the process serve to illuminate his own story.

The film suggests that we are all cast to the edges of life - as Bauby laments while staring off at the sea - by our own self-pity and fear, and perhaps the only escape, our only "butterfly," is self-expression, Art. Although they center on artists who transcend the circumstances of their everyday lives, Schnabel's films are not escapist; they do not transport viewers to new worlds, but rather elucidate the beauty and joy of our present existence. Yet, in true testament to Schnabel's own vision, they are not merely life affirming either - they instigate movement, action. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he has crafted a bona fide masterpiece, an epic film buttressed by the details of humanity, and a work that will rejuvenate and inspire audiences for years to come.

SEE ALSO: www.thedivingbellandthebutterfly-themovie.com

--
Imran Siddiquee
Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer pursuing self-expression in all its forms. This includes the occasional contribution to LAS as well as writing blogs, essays, short stories, an unpublished novel and some screenplays. He also creates horribly amateur music with his brother Yusuf.

See other articles by Imran Siddiquee.

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