Monday, January 14, 2008

Wiggle Your Toes and Blow a Kiss Today

Last night, David and I saw Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon, which also won a couple of Golden Globes last night (a "press conference" took the place of the red carpet due to the WGA strike.)

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon is actually called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in this country (though the movie is in French,) but since my high school (and college, and grad school) French is limited to effective menu reading and an occasional smug "I knew THAT" when I see subtitles, I figured I'd bandy it about. (Also see under "How Sam makes people at airline ticket counters call her Doctor" for an analogous example.)

"TDBatB" is a true story based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of French Elle, a shameless womanizer, and a charming rake, who at age 42 suffers an extremely rare kind of stroke that leaves him with "locked-in syndrome." This means his brain stem no longer communicates with his spinal column, so while he is sassy as ever behind his one working eye, his body is left without movement or feeling. The movie is about how he embraces the humanity left to him--his imagination, his memory--and writes a book about the experience, but what it's really about is, "Damn, nothing like watching someone else be struck down in the prime of life to make the rest of us profoundly grateful for the little things."

Like being able to speak, for instance. In order to write his book, Bauby--with the help of his suspiciously gorgeous speech therapist and tireless secretary--learns a system of blinks to indicate when his dictationist (word?) has reached the letter he has in mind. The repeated litany of the French alphabet becomes a sort of mantra throughout the movie, a persistent reminder of the great joy and privilege of communicating with our loved ones, a privilege we often take for granted by saying nothing at all.

In one harrowing scene, Bauby receives a phone call (through a speaker) from his mistress, who has yet to visit him in his convalescence, while the mother of his children sits at his bedside. The latter is compelled to translate Bauby's conversation with the mistress even though every letter is like a stab wound, and Bauby, lying between them, suffers the indignity of having no control over any aspect of his existence, profound or trivial. In a more humorous moment, this is aptly illustrated by an orderly snapping off the TV during an exciting football game while Bauby--completely silent, completely still--screams "No, no, you idiot!" inside his head.

The first half of the movie is presented from Bauby's point of view, so the viewer experiences the unsettling necessity for people to loom directly into the patient's face, since he can't move his head. In the second half, Mathieu Amalric has the daunting task of presenting Bauby's inner life while strapped into a chair, his one frozen eye covered in a patch, unable to signal his thoughts with any expression. It's an amazing performance, and Schnabel shoots some gorgeous footage of Bauby and his family and caretakers out on the wide, empty beach of Berck, a seaside vacation town in France which becomes his home. The soaring expanses of water and sand make Bauby in his chair and a series of unflattering hats look tiny and insubstantial, an illusion belied by the majestic landscape inside his head.

What's most amazing about the film is how Bauby's writing soars, totally liberated from the condition of its author, and yet completely of his creation. The memoir was an instant best-seller, and based on the voice-overs in this film, I'm not surprised. Love and lust and beauty and nature and even the sensual pleasures of food emerge luxuriant and fleshed, defiantly unlike the frozen and shriveled husk from whence they originate. The film suggests that Bauby has simply willed the vitality of his former body into the limitless possibility of his mind.

2 comments:

Cheri said...

First, can I just tell you that I was spared the high school, college, and grad school French, and I can still totally read a menu in French. Laura says, "Mom, you speak French food." "Oui, ma chere," I tell her, "it is all I need to know."

So, Sam, this is a great post. Wow. What a story. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

Jenny said...

I saw the review on "sunday morning" and thought wow, now that is a film I would be interested in watching, if I can not have baby brain for 1 moment. It was startling on the tv I can't imagine how it is watching in a theater.
Great review!