The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the latest film from director Julian Schnabel, is a testament to not only the constant ingenuity of film, but also the visual and emotional stagnation of much of American cinema.
The film is a heartbreakingly honest look at an egotistic man trapped inside himself, and it contains a beautiful gravity lacking in almost any American release in years. An ode to not only the perseverance of the human mind but also the redemptive quality of imagination, Butterfly is rare in that not only is it universal in its message and presentation, but also remains uniquely foreign and enticingly original.
Butterfly is based on the novel by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who, after having suffered a stroke, became a rare victim of "Locked-In" syndrome, a condition where the body cannot move but the mind is as intact as it was before the stroke. The film chronicles Bauby's struggles in coping with this condition, and the remarkable achievements he made in that state. With only the use of an eyelid, Bauby wrote his seminal work, and through an adaptation from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Butterfly gracefully and powerfully recreates the ordeal.
What's truly remarkable about director Schnabel isn't the visual freshness of his work - although it is there in spades - but his ability to make Bauby's experience at once accessible and at the same time alien. The first section of the film is shot from Bauby's claustrophobic perspective, as he slowly realizes the ramifications of this condition. Schnabel uses his able direction not only to capture Bauby's rueful inner thoughts, but also to create a myriad of snapshots of Bauby's past, as he relives his sins and redemptive acts.
Balancing this intensely intimate view of a man's life, however, is Schnabel's fantastic array of visuals. Metaphorical images are paired with kinetic memories, all crafted with verve and ability.
It would be remiss to neglect mention of a ground-breaking performance by Mathieu Amalric, who portrays Bauby with grace, humor and melancholy sadness. Beyond embodying Bauby's sundered physical self, Amalric portrays Bauby in his past as not only a gallivanting cad, but also fills his inner present world with mirth and amusement, a bittersweet parallel to his current condition. Without Amalric, Butterfly would not be nearly as effective.
Schnabel has received a best-directing Oscar nomination for his work in Butterfly, and rightfully so. It is especially difficult for non-mainstream foreign directors to gain this honor; the last to do so was Fernando Meirelles (for his equally stunning City of God).
Comparing Schnabel's work to that of the other directors this year is futile, because while American directors are becoming more steeped in mostly tired reinventions of Americana, Schnabel's work transcends borders, nationalities and styles. Schnabel has created a fantasia of the human spirit with Butterfly, and a beautiful mediation on what can be achieved through limitation.