Go ahead. Waste your time with the DVD dreck being released today. Only a masochist would want to see Nicole Kidman in The Golden Compass, the megabudget and misbegotten epic that helped bring down New Line Cinema (now absorbed by Warner Bros). The chick flick, 27 Dresses, isn’t torture for guys (nothing with Katherine Heigl in it could be), but it’s relentlessly girlie. And all the while a good movie — hell, a groundbreaker — is in danger of being lost in the slush pile. That film is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When the film was released last November, I begged my friends to see it. They winced. “Isn’t that the one about the stroke victim guy who who can only communicate by blinking?” Isn’t it depressing? Isn’t it in French with subtitles?” Ah, the trifecta of turnoffs. So they missed it, even when it won Oscar nominations for directing, screenwriting, editing and cinematography. They promised they would wait for the DVD.
OK, people, that day is here. No excuses. Insert the disc, press play and focus. Here is a remarkable true story filmed with an exhilarating disregard for conventional rules. With maverick painter Julian Schnabel at the directing helm, you expect nothing less. The very first scene thrusts us into the head of a man emerging from a coma. His name is Jean-Dominique Bauby. He’s the editor of French Elle. And a stroke has left him paralyzed, trapped in the diving bell of his own body, with only his left eye — which blinks like a butterfly — capable of movement. That Bauby was able to compose a memoir through a painstaking process of blinking when an assistant spoke the alphabet aloud is nothing short of miraculous. The book was published in 1997, just three days before Bauby died at age forty-five.
Bring on your My Left Foot jokes — call it My Left Eyelash. The movie will still wipe you out. Schnabel’s previous two films (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) also focused on artists. But this is his best film yet, a high-wire act of visual daring and unquenchable spirit. All praise to Mathieu Amalric, whose performance as Bauby, bedridden and seen in flashback in robust, skirt-chasing health, defines the word “extraordinary.” Max Von Sydow is superb as Bauby’s father. Ditto Marie-Josee Croze as the therapist who teaches him the blink system. Bogus uplift isn’t in Schnabel’s DNA. His film honors Bauby by treating his torment and his triumph with unflinching honesty.
As for the DVD, it offers perfection in picture and sound. Schnabel’s commentary is a bit disjointed, but two bonus features on the making of the movie actually tell you something about how Schnabel, working with director of photography Janusz Kaminski and editor Juliette Welfling, actually managed to put us inside Bauby’s head. If you still have objections about seeing this movie, I want to hear them now.