Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Finally: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Finally is a semi-regular column (maybe) wherein Jeff writes a rambling essay about a movie he’s been putting off.

So, I’ve amassed a pretty sizable collection of DVDs in my apartment that I’ve never actually watched. Some of these were loaned to me by friends (sorry guys!), some of these were lost in the mail on their way back to Netflix (sorry guys!), and some of them were presents for my 26th birthday four years ago (thanks for the thoughtful gifts!). One of my new year’s resolutions was to watch all these DVDs; it’s March and I’m just starting, so you can tell how dedicated I am.

I’ve decided to catalog my progress in a series of posts sort of like that blog where the lady cooks a different recipe from the Julia Child cookbook every day. She had some spiritual discoveries too, I think. Maybe I’ll have some of those. And get a movie deal! I could use the money to buy more DVDs that I won’t watch.

This guy accomplished more with one blinking eye than you'll ever... blah blah blah etc.

This week’s movieThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly

How long has it gone unwatched? Conservatively, I’d say three years. It could be more. The movie has gone neglected for so long that it’s started to multiply. I have two copies. I know one copy was loaned to me by a friend ages ago – along with Dancer in the Dark, also unwatched! – because we were having a conversation about depressing disability movies or Lars Von Trier or something. The second copy is still unopened. Was this a gift? A warning? I have no idea.

Why haven’t you watched it? I tend to avoid movies about people living with and/or overcoming horrible disabilities or diseases. For instance, I saw over 100 movies in 2012 and made a point to see as many “serious” films as I could, but I totally skipped The Sessions. And I’m a big fan of John Hawkes! But paralyzed John Hawkes? Eh, pass. I did really enjoy Amour – as much as a person can enjoy Amour, meaning I briefly attained that sublime state of wanting to die from sadness – but that’s more about DEATH than it is about TRIUMPHING OVER DISEASE.

Do I avoid these films on purpose? (I haven’t even watched the movie yet and we’re already on our way to a spiritual discovery! It’s working!) I’m not squeamish about medical stuff, I saw Human Centipede and 50/50 (both chilling). If there’s an element of these films that rankles, it’s probably the whole getting uplifted thing. Simultaneously feeling like ‘wow, people are capable of amazing things!’ and also ‘I’m so glad I’m not that crippled guy!’ and those thoughts combining and mutating into ‘that vegetable just wrote a novel with his eyelid and meanwhile Google Adsense hasn’t paid out for your blog in MONTHS!’ Who wants to feel like that? Not this guy. Take your triumph of the human spirit and shove it up your butt, okay?

Alright, let’s watch this thing. I’ll be returning your DVD soon, buddy!

Je veux mourir, ditto.

If I ever have a stroke or aneurism or other as yet undiscovered brain malfunction and my only method of communication is blinking, here’s the code: one blink means “please kill me” and two blinks also means “please kill me.” Glad that’s in writing. Whew!

Before I start rambling about The Diving Bell – which I thought was just great! – we need to talk about what prefaces the trailers on the DVD. It’s that old anti-smoking ad with the cowboy in Times Square singing through one of those buzzy voicebox things. “You don’t always die from tobacco, sometimes they just snip out your tongue.” WHO ARE THEY??? That’s good public service placement right there – hey, you’re probably going to get cancer, but in case you don’t, here’s a movie about strokes. I wonder if the DVD of 127 Hours starts with that one PSA where the lady is missing all her fingers because of sugar? Or is it cigarettes, again? I can’t keep track. Bloomberg!

Anyway, unlike the cigarette smoking cowboy, the breather tube shoved into Mathieu Amalric’s neck is just pretend. Amalric stars as Elle-editor/stroke-victim Jean-Dominique Bauby who actually blinked out a best-selling novel post-stroke IRL, which is just god damn amazing to me because I’ve been working on this crappy little paragraph for like 30 minutes and I’m perfectly well. See what I mean about feeling diminished by the miraculous accomplishments of the ruthlessly handicapped?

Saying that Amalric stars in Diving Bell is a sentiment worthy of air-quotes. The real stars here are director Julian Schnabel, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and editor Juliette Welfing. Aren’t the real stars always behind the camera, hmm? No. But, interestingly, Kaminski is Steven Spielberg’s go-to DP, which makes me pointlessly wonder what a choreographed third act cry invoking mega-turd Diving Bell could’ve been if it’d landed with a mainstream director. It probably would’ve won Best Picture. Or at least beaten out Juno for a nomination. Wasn’t 2007 a great year for movies? No, seriously, it was. (I’ve never actually seen Juno)

I don’t mean to dog Amalric by shouting out the folks behind the camera. He’s great at pulling stroke-face, you know, with the lip thing, the same face he’d cause a couple years later on James Bond while whipping the spy’s balls with a knotted rope. That’s another reason I shy away from these movies, actually! Actors pulling stupid faces, or acting handicapped, or losing a bunch of weight because they’re sick – spare me. I’m not interested in how challenging it is to drool all over yourself. Like, how is that any braver than Alan Rickman pretending to fall off a roof in Die Hard? It’s not.

But luckily, that’s not what Diving Bell is like. I mean, it does have the sorta uplifting man-triumphs-over-his-ailing-body thing going on, but Bauby is such an inherently cynical character, a realist, a sometimes jerk that I find very identifiable, that the film never slips into treacle. The most emotionally exploitative moments are probably the ones between Bauby and his father (Max von Sydow) and they’re just so grounded and smart that I don’t really mind if Schnabel is trying to make me cry. Shut up, I didn’t, shut up.

And anyway, back-tracking to why Schnabel and co deserve more credit than Amalric (it’s not a competition!), we don’t even really see our lead until the second act. The first act is all bold first-person film-making, seeing through the eye of a paralyzed man, listening to his futile inner monologue – and it’s way, way, way more affecting than any number of scenes of dude’s bottom lip trembling. There’s an emotional distance created when we watch a sick person on screen, like oh that sucks glad it isn’t me, and that distance is erased when you’re trapped inside Bauby’s head watching his eye get stitched shut. That detachment suddenly turns into holy shit that could be me. And it probably will be you! Hope you’re a rich magazine editor so when your body becomes useless there will be hot therapists fawning all over it.

Smartly, Diving Bell mixes up the eyeball-cam thing before it loses its power. Granted, I don’t think the rest of the film ever matches its harrowing first act, although that nightmarish neon-soaked trip to Lourdes is a pretty remarkable sequence, maybe my favorite of the film. And then there’s Bauby driving with his son and the onset of the stroke, which is maybe a little melodramatic, but also some great late game character-work from Amalric combined with some stellar face-making.

The DVD case calls Diving Bell “inspiring” twice and while I do think that it’s inspiring in that look-what-humans-are-capable-of way, I also don’t think it ever gets too high on its own inherent inspirado, meaning that it blends in a nice undercurrent of man-life-is-fucked-we’re-all-going-to-die. That’s how I prefer my movies about sick people; where our ailing heroes aren’t deified and the emotional manipulation is overshadowed entirely by amazing technique.

FINALLY? Yes! Finally! I wish I’d watched it sooner.

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