Originally published in Willamette Week in a somewhat altered form on January 2, 2008.
The Julian Schnabel-Ronald Harwood adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir begins sublimely. Charles Trenet croons “La Mer” over opening credits interspersed amid shadows of bone and muscle. These x-rays, in gray tones of black and white, are striking in themselves; when set to a jaunty, Gallic pop tune of 1946 vintage, sight and sound merge into a nifty emblem for the movie’s subject—a bon vivant confronting mortality.
Bauby, editor-in-chief of the French Elle, suffered a debilitating stroke in his early forties that paralyzed him entirely, save for his left eye. That’s how we enter the movie’s world, through the fluttering of that eyelid as it closes and opens. Director Schnabel uses a swing and tilt lens to achieve stunning distortion effects of blurring and rippling, point-of-view shots that shift in and out of focus as Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens before a swarm of doctors in a blue-green hospital room.
Schnabel had sense enough to cast extraordinarily comely actresses in key roles. The ravishing blond Emmanuelle Seigner brings haute couture poignancy to Céline, the never-wed mother of Bauby’s children. Physical and speech therapists are unlikely to be any lovelier than Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia are here. Bauby’s memoir, blinked out a letter at a time, was filled with fantasies and dreams; in the best of these on-screen, the gourmand Bauby, now fed through a tube, imagines a lavish meal in which he and one of the therapists smear oysters on the half-shell into each other’s mouths, before passionately, exuberantly kissing across the table.
On the page, what endures is the testament of a romantic sensibility whose desires ranged from elite to plebeian and back again. Amalric, who’s an ideal choice for the role, doesn’t fully inhabit Bauby, because of what Harwood’s screenplay leaves out: the author’s voice, his humor. The movie misses the spirit of the man.
Schnabel and Harwood jettison the tense, cinematically conceived recreation of Bauby’s final hours before the stroke, the dramatic high point of the late memoirist’s 132-page masterpiece. Schnabel, in fact, doesn’t know how to end the picture—he cranks up Joe Strummer on the soundtrack (awful choice) and in a metaphor oddly redolent of Humpty-Dumpty, the director reverses stock footage of a glacier’s sheets of ice cascading and tumbling down from the main, so that they collapse upwards together again.
Schnabel’s liberties recall Sean Penn’s facile misreading of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Diving Bell isn’t nearly the maladroit hash that Penn wrought from Chris McCandless’s fatal Alaskan sojourn; flaws and all, Schnabel’s endeavor merits a matinee. But both films, by nature of the compromises they make, raise the same question: Don’t these poor bastards who died young deserve better endings in their movies than they had in their lives? — NPT