At last year's Cannes Film Festival, filmmaker Julian Schnabel won the Best Director award for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his French-language adaptation of the best-selling memoir by the late Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. Felled by a massive stroke at age 43, Bauby was left fully conscious but completely paralyzed, save for the ability to rotate his head and blink his left eye. (It was by blinking that Bauby was eventually able to "dictate" his book.) If such awards were based on quantity alone, there'd be no question that Schnabel's was deserved; there is more directing per square inch in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly than in any other movie released last year.
The movie's central gimmick — and make no mistake, it's a gimmick — is that we mostly see things as Schnabel imagines Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) saw them, from a fixed perspective and with many strange tricks of light. Shot by the acclaimed Polish cinematographer (and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator) Janusz Kaminski, Diving Bell is an ocular orgy of blurred images, flickering exposures, distorted wide-angles, and extreme close-ups. And even when Schnabel drops that point of view or lapses into flashbacks from Bauby's pre-stroke life, he employs the same rampant overstylization. It's the most sensually assaulting movie in recent memory, with the possible exception of Michael Bay's Transformers, and yet many of the same people who criticized Bay for his attention-deficient aesthetics are falling over each other to praise Schnabel. Why? Because instead of ransacking the storehouse of commercial advertising for his inspiration, he steals his visual tricks from more highfalutin sources: Fellini, Stan Brakhage, and the British filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin, who has made a series of movies chronicling his own battle with the debilitating effects of polio.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — the title comes from Bauby's metaphor for the disparity between his lifeless, imprisoned body and his active mind — is one of those movies that tends to get sold as "an inspiring testament to the power of human imagination." But what good is a movie about imagination when the director does so much imagining that the audience can't get a thought in edgewise? When Bauby wrote about his conjured waking dreams, they seemed fanciful and light — gourmet dinners in four-star restaurants, imagined meetings with the empress wife of Napoleon III. But when Schnabel visualizes these fantasies onscreen, they're thuddingly literal.
Of course, Bauby's story is remarkable — but not for the reasons that the movie keeps telling us. The movie focuses too narrowly on the idea of communication — on how Bauby, despite his condition, manages to re-establish contact with the outside world. Bauby was a bon vivant who, at the time of his stroke, had recently separated from the mother of his three young children and moved in with another mistress. But the delicious idea of these two beauties continuing to vie for Bauby's affections, even in his semi-vegetative state, is touched on by The Diving Bell only fleetingly, during one extraordinary scene in which Bauby must prevail upon his former lover (the superb Emmanuelle Seigner) to "translate" for him during a telephone call to his current flame.
There are a handful of similarly affecting moments scattered throughout, including two scenes featuring Max von Sydow as Bauby's 92-year-old father. They work in a way the rest of the film doesn't, because Schnabel seems to be communing with his subject on a particularly personal level. Far too often, though, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly feels grotesquely calculated, especially the more Schnabel ratchets up the exact sort of inspirational platitudes that Bauby — who maintained an acerbic sense of humor about his situation until the very end — would have despised.
The inelegant yet functional name of Bauby's rare condition was "locked-in syndrome," and here, too, there's a vastly more intriguing movie existing somewhere beneath the surface of a boilerplate Hollywood weepie. It's like a butterfly with lead for wings.