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.”