by David Denby
ost filmmakers regard subjects like illness and despair as dangerous traps—mawkish sentimentality lying on one side of the high road of art, pleasureless suffering on the other—but the challenge of an impossible subject can bring out the best in a director, and now, after Paul Haggis’s mournful and touching “In the Valley of Elah,” there are two more dark victories, Tamara Jenkins’s “The Savages” and Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The Schnabel movie is about an unlucky man—Jean-Dominique Bauby, the real-life editor of French Elle, who, in 1995, at the age of forty-three, suffered a massive stroke. Lying speechless and outraged in a hospital near Calais, a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was restored to full mental clarity but could move nothing but his left eye. Yet Schnabel’s movie, based on the calm and exquisite little book that Bauby wrote in the hospital, is a gloriously unlocked experience, with some of the freest and most creative uses of the camera and some of the most daring, cruel, and heartbreaking emotional explorations that have appeared in recent movies.
Bauby has been reduced to a thing, an object—the ultimate patient—but the emotional and animal life in him hasn’t died, and for that we are profoundly grateful. We needn’t merely feel sorry for this man—unlike his caretakers and his guests, we know what’s going on in his head. Schnabel neither avoids nor softens the hospital-room procedures, yet slowly the movie opens up. The camera shifts away from Bauby’s limited gaze and moves to a third-person point of view that takes in everything, including Amalric’s face, with its hanging lip and wandering left eye. The sight of that face—as grotesque as an image from a horror movie yet expunged of titillation—is a shock, but we quickly get used to it, and the picture moves steadily ahead on two tracks: we see the stages of Bauby’s treatment, including the tortuous but productive way he learns to write; and the tumult and ecstasy of his inner life. When Bauby, liberated from terror, says, “I can imagine anything,” Schnabel, in a burst of exhilaration, takes us on a speed journey through Bauby’s visions and hopes and fantasies—boyhood skiing and surfing, Marlon Brando made up as Pan and horsing around (an image of something that Bauby wanted to be). Later, as Bauby begins to write his book, memories of driving with his girlfriend, her hair blowing in the wind in an open landscape, come flooding back. In the present, he’s visited by his small children, who scamper around the paralyzed body on an empty beach.
Schnabel is openly emotional, and Kaminski at times approaches commercial imagery, but there’s always something astringent or off-center in the moods and compositions which pulls the movie back into art. A memory of Bauby shaving his ninety-two-year-old dad (Max Von Sydow, more powerful than ever as a powerless old man) reverses the care-giving polarities, but bathos is averted by the matched vanity of loving father and loving son. After each flight, whether to the past or to a moment outside the hospital, we’re sent back to Bauby, his neck askew, eye ravenously taking in the world, as he rests on a long, hauntingly beautiful terrace near the sea, as empty and poignant a place as one of Antonioni’s desolate streets. Stillness and frenzy oscillate in almost musical rhythm. Feverishly, Bauby imagines the history of the hospital, with the Empress Eugénie visiting tubercular children and the young Nijinsky, temporarily rehearsing there, leaping through the air. The associations are wild and free, yet nothing feels arbitrary or garish (one thinks of the visionary episodes in silent film rather than of Fellini). We need this extravagant beauty; we deserve it. The diving bell of the title refers to a recurring shot of Bauby trapped inside ancient deep-sea equipment, helplessly sinking in water. The butterfly is his mind and, of course, the cinema itself, which can go anywhere it wants.
A literary man working for a commercial magazine, Bauby, we gather, is not a very nice guy. Or, rather, in the scenes from the past, he comes off as full of life, a lover, a power in the fashion and magazine worlds but not particularly courageous or loyal. Mathieu Amalric has a round face and slightly bulging eyes, and an easy way of swinging his body through a room; he’s avid, restless—not handsome, exactly, but an actor with a sexual presence. Sometime before his illness, Bauby left the beautiful, soft-voiced Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children, in favor of a big-boned, exotic, and demanding girlfriend, Inès (Agathe de La Fontaine). In the hospital, he longs for Inès, but it’s Céline, a wife in all but name, who comes to visit and stays. This mild-tempered woman, we realize with a pang, is paralyzed in her own way—she’s hopelessly in love with her man even though he finds her a little dull. Both the doctors and the therapists know that Bauby’s recovery depends on keeping his libido alive, and Schnabel brazenly dramatizes the treatment as an exchange in which eros and caring become inextricable. The physical therapist (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel’s wife) teaches Bauby to swallow by twirling her tongue, and the speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze), a more earnest sort, flirts with her patient morally. She runs through the alphabet in the order of letters most frequently used in French, and Bauby blinks when he wants to choose a letter. After a while, the therapist anticipates his words from the initial letter, and she becomes enraged when his first sentence announces his desire to die. Her demand for a retraction is itself a complete drama of rejection, hurt feelings, and renewed adoration.
Bauby seems to attract the love of religious women who pray for a miracle to save him, but, a freethinker, and anti-clerical in a long French tradition, he will have none of it. A beefy attendant cradling his slack, naked body in the hospital’s pool suggests Mary holding the crucified Jesus, but Bauby will rise again only in art: the miracle this movie celebrates is his ability to compose his book. Still, “The Diving Bell” surges toward redemption—a man fully realizing his humanity only when mobility and sexuality have been taken away. Imperially free and generous as Schnabel’s work is, the imagery—medical, erotic, religious—hangs together with enormous power. The birth of Bauby’s soul feels like nothing less than the rebirth of the cinema.
“The Savages,” a lesser affair, but still vital, honest, and engaging, is about a saturnine theatre professor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who specializes in the most acidulous of twentieth-century artists, Bertolt Brecht, and his kid sister (Laura Linney), an unproduced playwright who gets by with temp jobs, stealing from office supply rooms, and hustling for grants. The two, on either side of forty, have essentially lived as orphans from the beginning—their mom fled, and their dad (Philip Bosco) was abusive and distant. Unresolved in everything that matters, brother and sister, to their chagrin, find themselves in charge of the nasty, unreachable old man in his final days. The movie, however, is less interested in their relation to him than in their cranky elbowing of each other. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, “The Savages” asks whether two people who have never been loved can possibly bring themselves to value anyone else, or even themselves. The professor prides himself on living without any illusions at all (one of the greatest of vanities), and Hoffman, roughening his voice, launches into some blistering tirades, as if he alone were in possession of the truth. The playwright, eager for approval, tells little lies to gain temporary advantage, and Linney, grinning like a teen-ager over her fibs, does her naughtiest, most secretive work yet. The two great actors lead us toward a tentatively happy conclusion, in which life, to their mutual surprise, does manage to stumble on.