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It’s a serious subject, so after a few chuckles, Schnabel, the blustery artist, filmmaker, and enfant terrible, answers seriously: “He was funny. He had a great sense of humor, and he wasn’t filled with self-pity,” he says, pointing to a scene in which Bauby, after five hours of painstaking dictation, remarks, “It’s not Balzac.”
Schnabel’s ability to preserve the dark humor Bauby found in his own condition is one of many qualities that set Diving Bell apart from a conventional triumph-of-the-spirit narrative. Here’s another joke: On the festival circuit, the film was nicknamed “My Left Eye,” in reference to Jim Sheridan’s 1989 Oscar winner My Left Foot, about one man’s struggle to overcome cerebral palsy. While The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a radically different film, it does share its predecessor’s warts-and-all perspective on its subject, saving it from ever becoming maudlin or sentimental. “You don’t become a saint because you have a stroke,” observes French actor Matthieu Almaric, who grippingly portrays Bauby. Initially skeptical of the story’s tear-jerking premise, Almaric was swayed by Schnabel’s commitment to depict Bauby, the human—a man who, before his locked-in life, was a shameless womanizer and narcissist.
While the film celebrates the new self-knowledge Bauby haltingly achieves—“Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?” he asks, in one of the story’s most indelible lines—it steadfastly refuses to put a halo on him. There’s the poignant scene in which Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), Bauby’s estranged ex-wife who is nonetheless loyal to him throughout the ordeal, is forced to translate his feelings over the phone to Ines, the new girlfriend who comes to see him. There’s also Bauby’s ambition, undimmed to the end, which struck everyone involved with the production. “He wanted the film to exist,” says Almaric. “He also wanted to be famous. He was a normal guy.”
“That’s the secret thing in him, that he always wanted to write a book,” adds veteran screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), who adapted the memoir. “He wanted to be taken seriously, he felt that being an editor at Elle magazine was not dignified or intellectual enough… The moment it was finished, he died.”
The refusal to sentimentalize was consistent with the film’s larger insistence on truth and specificity, no matter what. That’s why Schnabel opted to learn French, to cast French actors, to shoot at the seaside hospital where Bauby convalesced, and to involve the caregivers who actually knew him in the production. “I thought to have English and American people make believe they were French, and then have French people read French subtitles in France, it just seemed ridiculous,” Schnabel says. “I have to be responsible for what I do if I’m the author of this movie, and I think it would have been compromised to go to a soundstage in Los Angeles.”
Schnabel’s approach to directing was almost as unusual as Bauby’s method of writing. He introduced visual flourishes, like the claustrophobic point-of-view camera used early in the film to depict the world from Bauby’s new perspective (conceived by Harwood, executed to perfection by Schnabel), and set pieces inspired by scenes from Antonioni and Truffaut, giving the film a rich, expressionistic strangeness that’s both typical of Schnabel and wholly appropriate for the material. He also forged unique relationships with his actors, working to develop their characters by translating Harwood’s script into French together, then shooting without rehearsals, sometimes in a single take, if he felt he’d achieved the authenticity he was after. “Julian used to call us every day,” says Marie-Josée Croze, who plays Henriette, the therapist who devises the system that allows Bauby to communicate. “We spent days and days before shooting. He wanted us to be ourselves in a way, and appropriate the characters, to become them and not act. I think he doesn’t like people who act. He likes people who are sincere and uncommon. He likes accidents.”
Schnabel wasn’t “looking for actors, or DPs, or sound engineers,” adds Almaric. “He was looking for people with whom he wanted to make the journey.”
Though Schnabel’s previous two films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, were also stories about creative people on a collision course with death, this time the journey was more personal. One of several flashback sequences shows the still-healthy Bauby shaving his elderly father, played with great sensitivity by the legendary Max von Sydow. Schnabel’s own father, whom he had often used to shave, passed away shortly before Schnabel took the project. Making the film was a way to tackle the fear he’d seen in his father, and his own fear of death.
The more he sees the film, the better he feels, he says. “We do have a terminal case of life,” he observes. “But within that, if you look into your interior life, you can actually find the material of beauty which says that maybe it’s worthwhile being here.”