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December 22, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | December 22, 2007 |

In the documentary Crumb, R. Crumb’s wife says that her husband would “rather be a brain in a jar than a person in a body.” As if it’s a choice. Conventional modern wisdom has it that we’re both: the person is the brain; the body is the jar. The expertly realized opening scene of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly proves why dualism — the long-embattled idea that mental activity is independent of physical causes — can have an instinctive appeal. In the scene, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens from a three-week coma and the viewer assumes his perspective, looking outward from his eyes while they slowly adjust to the surroundings. As doctors speak with Bauby, we soon realize that his end of the conversation is only in his head, remaining unverbalized. A stroke has left him with “locked-in syndrome,” an exceedingly rare condition in which the victim is entirely paralyzed, without the ability to speak but with full mental function. The brain soldiers on, even with the jar a pile of shards.

Diving Bell is based on the true story related in Bauby’s memoir of the same name. At the time of his stroke, in 1995, he was the editor of French Elle, in his early 40s, friendly with rock stars, and in love with a beautiful woman (for whom he had left the mother of his three children, Celine). He was also contracted to write a novel — an updating of The Count of Monte Cristo — but that project came to be replaced by the memoir.

With the help of a therapist, Henriette (the luminous Marie-Josée Croze), Bauby learned to communicate by listening as the alphabet was recited, reconfigured so that the most commonly used letter came first, the second-most common second, and so on. When he heard the letter he wanted, he blinked his left eye, the one part of his body over which he retained control. (His non-functioning right eye was sewn shut to keep it from becoming septic. Director Julian Schnabel, a renowned visual artist who’s been turning out a film every five or six years, uses the grisly detail as an opportunity to craft a dazzling — if unsettling — image.) Henriette gave way to the tireless and loving Claude (Anne Consigny), who took this painstaking form of dictation until the memoir was finished.

Needless to say, the story is stirring. If there aren’t at least a few scenes that spur you to tears, you might want to check the circuitry. But outside of his circumstances, Bauby is not a saintly character, and the movie admirably refrains from suggesting that his tragedy is enough to make him one. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) becomes a regular, supportive presence at the hospital, while Bauby’s girlfriend, Ines, never shows her face. Still, his attitudes toward the two women remain unchanged.

Schnabel’s painterly eye results in dozens of stunning images, even if it also, at moments, steers the film uncomfortably close to the gauzy aesthetic of a high-end perfume commercial. He may lack the precision of a Terrence Malick (or put more kindly, he may have a broader palette), but like Malick, he seems interested in film primarily for its visual poetry. No matter how affecting, though, a two-hour visual poem threatens to outstay its welcome. The first half of Diving Bell is among the year’s best work, largely because the decision to keep the audience locked in Bauby’s point of view unnervingly recreates the sensation of being paralyzed. As the movie unfolds into flashbacks (including terrific work by Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father) and surprisingly tepid testaments to the human imagination, repetition moves in to slightly dilute the film’s power.

Amalric, a veteran French actor, brilliantly and seamlessly inhabits Bauby. He adjusts his good eye by tiny degrees to move from fidgety to panicked to grieving to resigned. And his voiceover work is the movie’s most potent device. We’re continually privy to Bauby’s interior monologue, in which he retains a sharp sense of humor despite his tragedy, flirting with beautiful therapists, doubting the usefulness of those praying for him, and screaming at an orderly for turning off a TV during the pivotal moments of a soccer match. Even though his spirit can be feisty, Bauby wonders at times if he’s feeling too much self-pity. To someone viewing his nightmare, it scarcely seems possible that there’s a level of self-pity to which he’s not entitled.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

A Brain in a Jar

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly / John Williams

Film | December 22, 2007 |

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