Vivid image of life in paralysis

Who are we, really, and what is the invisible, powerful energy dwelling within us capable of creating the most unimaginable feats?

It’s just one of the questions raised in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which opens in San Francisco on Friday.

Directed by Julian Schnabel, “Bell” chronicles the tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the acclaimed Elle France editor who in 1995 suffered a stroke at age 43. His entire body was paralyzed except his left eye. With the assistance of a speech therapist, Bauby learned to communicate by blinking.

The result gave birth to an illustrious, internationally best-selling book titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death.” Schnabel, whose depth as a filmmaker won him accolades for “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” transforms it into one of the most mesmerizing films of the year.

“When Bauby was coming out the mist of a coma, he didn’t have the luxury of having his dreams evaporate,” Schnabel says. “You take a guy like that at his word, and then you realize, what is reality to him and what is reality in the film?”

He attributes most of the movie’s winning elements to actor Mathieu Amalric, who faced treacherous emotional and psychological challenges morphing into the paralyzed Bauby.

“I don’t think I could have made it without him,” Schnabel says of the actor. “He had patch over one eye, a bloodshot lens over the other and his lips were glued to his face. He was lying still for such a long time that people didn’t know that he was he there. And that will do something to somebody.”

Keeping his bond with Amalric strong, the two worked diligently and patiently to capture the nuances of Bauby’s colorful interior world.

But Schnabel, a revered artist, is not a stranger to such a process. He enjoys projects — in film, on canvas — that are not linear and says that “Bell” is a more Whitman-esque idea of reality and making art than something that is confined to structure.

“Bauby transposed his life into art by making that book,” he says. “It’s what you want to spend your life doing while you’re here — making something life-affirming. We call it the denial of death.”

Surprisingly, the subject of death was the very thing that fueled Schnabel’s unquenchable desire to complete the project. His father’s illness and subsequent death in 2004 led him to embrace his own mortality.

“My whole life I had been thinking about death,” he says. “I am a painter and I think most painters think about death a lot, but I was terrified of it most of my life. And my father, who was 92 when he died, was terrified of death.

“I felt like I had failed him in some way,” he adds, “like I could have saved him from that fear. Ultimately, this film wasn’t about death. It was an effigy about life. And my fear of death was taken away in the process of making of this movie.”

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

A “for rent” sign outside an apartment complex in the Mission District on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Housing inventory wins unanimous approval from supervisors

Legislation will require landlords to register properties, report vacancies and rents

Dr. Grant Colfax and Mayor London Breed said new restrictions could come this week due to rising COVID-19 cases. (Examiner screenshot)
Breed: ‘More restrictive action’ needed to slow spread of COVID-19

San Francisco officials said Tuesday tougher restrictions will soon be imposed to… Continue reading

Harlan Kelly, head of the SFPUC and husband to City Administrator Naomi Kelly (right), faces federal charges for allegedly trading inside information on a city contract in return for a paid family vacation. (Courtesy photo)
Harlan Kelly, head of SFPUC, charged with fraud in widening Nuru scandal

Kelly accused of engaging in corrupt partnership with permit expediter

Jeff Tumlin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said the agency’s fiscal situation is “far worse” than the worse case scenarios projected back in April. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA prepares for massive potential layoffs as budget crisis continues to build

More than 1,200 full-time jobs on the line as agency struggles to close deficit

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is weighing further restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise. (Genaro Molina/Pool/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Newsom considering new shelter-in-place order as COVID-19 cases rise

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday warned that he may need to reinstate… Continue reading

Most Read