The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
Sometimes the gulf between hardcore cineastes and the rest of the movie-watching world seems so vast as to be truly unbridgeable. A few years ago, Alejandro Amenbar's The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem as a paraplegic fighting for the right to commit suicide, captivated festival audiences in multiple countries and took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film—which rather surprised me and my film-buff friends, since we'd all dismissed it as maudlin, heavy-handed swill. Julian Schnabel's superficially similar The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the memoir by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, doesnt pluck at the heartstrings quite so clumsily or insistently, but I was still startled—will I never learn?—to pick up the trades this afternoon* and discover that it's being hailed as brilliant, stunning, the new Palme d'Or frontrunner. Really? In a festival delectably top-heavy with the radical and the visionary, this mundane paean to the indomitable human spirit is what gets everyone all fired up?That said, I'm grateful that Schnabel eventually ditches his most unorthodox device and settles into a more conventional visual rhythm. Bauby, who at the time of his cerebrovascular stroke was the Paris editor of Elle, awakens from a coma only to find himself completely paralyzed; for two full reels—nearly 40 minutes of screen time—we see the world exclusively from his stationary vantage point. Schnabel clearly wants us to feel as trapped as his afflicted hero, but the first-person camera style is so unnatural that it invariably comes across as a gimmick; once the film begins to alternate between interior and exterior views, time spent inside Bauby's diving bell becomes far more affecting.
As I said, the film was adapted from Bauby's memoir, and nobody with an ounce of empathy could fail to be moved by the true story of its painstaking creation, as Bauby dictates the entire book one character at a time, listening as his stenographer (Anne Consigny) recites the alphabet (in order of frequency in the French language) and blinking his left eyelid—the only muscle in his control—to indicate that she's reached the letter he wants. Schnabel was also wise to cast Mathieu Amalric, with his unusually expressive and already slightly bulging eyes, as Bauby—the disjunction between his sarcastic and penetrating thoughts (heard in voiceover) and his imploring, stricken gaze is genuinely heartrending. Still, it's the real-life story, not the artistry involved in its telling, that does the heavy lifting here. All Schnabel does is avoid screwing it up.
* How am I reading the trades without stumbling onto information about the remaining Competition films, followers of the Wack Experiment may wonder? It's too laborious to explain, really, but the key words are peripheral vision. Basically, I can see at a blurry glance which pages are safe (the review section, though I have to avoid the ads) and which aren't. This is also how I navigate the streets without catching sight of billboards.
You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
Asked to name the most singular, sui generis movie of the last decade or so, I'd probably plump for Roy Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor, a series of apocalyptic tableaux shot on massive, forced-perspective studio sets. The winner of a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000, it was Andersson's first feature in 25 years, and so complete in its unique aesthetic that it was hard to imagine what he could possibly do for an encore. A: More of the same, only with a jauntier, less overtly despairing tone. Indeed, You, the Living, a late addition to the Un Certain Regard section, sometimes feels like a lost silent comedy, with magnificently constructed sight gags (the best of which adds a pointed new twist to the old "yank the tablecloth from beneath the china" routine) and a recurring Dixieland-jazz score, heavy on the tuba. Songs From the Second Floor grew more and more impressive and haunting over repeat viewings (I've now seen it six times); You, the Living seems unlikely to expand in the same way, mostly because it lacks the nightmare-world throughline that made Second Floor feel like more than just a bunch of blackout sketches. But Andersson remains the only filmmaker in the world whose artistry is concentrated almost exclusively in set construction, and while there's nothing here to rival the massive airport sequence from the last film, the scene in which a newly married couple's apartment barrels through the countryside and eventually stops at a railway station (the set was apparently constructed on an actual train!) comes mighty close. Theres also a lone musical number, which is enjoyable enough to suggest that a full-fledged Roy Andersson musical could be awesome indeed. Pity his next film won't likely surface until around 2015.