DemosNews: Diving Bell & Butterfly: At the Alter of Art (Visual)
Diving Bell & Butterfly: At the Alter of Art (Visual)
By: TheYetter

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 The Little Soldier, a photographer addresses his subject in a moment of haut self-reference and declares, “Photography is the truth. And cinema is the truth 24 times a second.” Cinephiles rejoiced and hailed the dictum as not only a validation of a medium in the midst of popular and art-house bloom, but also as the fundamental tenet of a new wave of filmmaking that enshrined the organic relationship between reality and tales on the big screen.

Skip forward a few chapters on the French-language Life DVD and we arrive at The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), a deeply affecting movie that pitches artist, viewer, narrator, and creation in a paradoxical world of whirling stasis. The film depicts a vivacious editor, paralyzed and mute, dictating a memoir about life in the purview of death—a story from a novel that is shot, for the most part, with the audience playing the protagonist—a work whose realism is matched by its intrinsic, consummate art.

From the opening shot, the bespoke grammar of the film engages us—we are quite literally aborning, as image and story struggle to focus before our eyes—and we learn our cues even as the character does. We realize that we are the character as we grasp what has happened to him, and who he “is” (a composite figure, existing in opposite extremes). We are initiated into a monocular world (the camera’s lens! prescribed perspective!), bound by a binary language of blinks, and imprisoned by cramped locations. However, these rules are so compassionately outlined by the camerawork of director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the empathy of the various players that we find ourselves helplessly cooperative in the story.

The plot is remarkable, more so because of its factual truth. Jean-Dominique Bauby was the gallant editor of Elle (français) before suffering a paralyzing stroke that deprives him of all bodily control, save the movement of his left eyelid. Mind intact, he despairs, he loves, he jests, and he transforms his thoughts through Sisyphean blinking code into a novel, also called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That alone is a triumph of the will. And, wondrously, it is a thing of wit and charm and levity… woven into an exploration of Bauby’s past, his goodness, his failure, his energy.

The brilliance of the film does not stem from Bauby’s acts, though: it is our treatment that makes it so compelling—that of the audience, and that of the camera itself. The subjugation of our critical distance and the cooption of our sense of freedom by the camera’s frame refuse release. We think, sub-vocalize, and strain to see as Bauby does. We lust as Bauby does (skirts, lips, tongues); we yearn like him (for mistress, stenographer, father’s love). We dwell as Bauby, and intone with him as he spells out his hopes in indefeasible slowness. The choking pace and the bright eyes of prayerful women lend impossibility the glimmer of escape. We recoil as he does when that glimmer is of his/our own image—“please, no. let that not be me.” And, the lie: “I know how this will end. I get up. It was all a dream.”

Maybe twenty minutes into the film, we fly briefly out of the first person. How surreal! To see ourselves prone, helpless, lip lolling inert. It is this metaphysical contortion that locks us into Bauby. From within, struggling to reprise a sense of normalcy; from without, thrust into a world of wide-open vistas (a “Cinecitta” set, an ocean) that orbit around this grave and stolid body. We are at the mercy of complementary extremes, yoked to a man of naked character, liege to the gentle caprice of Schnabel’s narrative. At once, object and subject of empathy.

Why draw Godard into the equation? For one, this is beauty on the screen that hearkens the honesty and non-moralizing nature of New Wave cinema. For another, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tends closer to a semblance of truth on the screen than just about any movie in recent memory. Paramount, however, is its residence at that meta nexus of art and life. Here is art that champions art—life that extols life—art employed to convey life—life kneeling at the alter of art. This art, like life, takes and gives with heart-filled abandon.

© 2021 TheYetter of DemosNews

December 11, 2007 at 7:25pm
DemosRating: 4.83
Hits: 1633

Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: movie, review

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