“This is not fair.” What else is there to say to yourself when, like Jean-Do, you only have the use of one eye and a gorgeous speech therapist is demonstrating how to swallow with her tongue?
And there are many other beautiful things in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that are simply not fair. To be flashback to the brunette back of your lover’s head, hair snaking in the wind. As he does expertly throughout the film, Schnabel holds this moment so there is the corresponding ache for what has been lost. The first sequence painful in a different way—our eyes get tired watching the static camera blink through red, white and yellow blurs. Though he loosens this initially total subjectivity of the lens (making the film easier to take than, say, Bogart’s Dark Passage), Schnabel often leaves the camera prone, as when Jean-Do tools through Paris in the Jag convertible that is always already a gurney—the trees and rooftops, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumphe all pass dizzyingly above.
The music, despite a totally unwanted appearance by The Edge, matched the film—Tom Waits and Lou Rawls would be the first two people I’d ask for songs relating to a stroke victim completely paralyzed besides one eye. The classical piece is shared with Hannah and Her Sisters, connecting to this film through harsh romantic choices and startling, strong performances by Max von Sydow (nothing in this life and death film is as nerve-racking as Jean-Do shaving his frail yet commanding father, von Sydow).
I first chuckled then came to understand the Hospital’s Cinecittà: Jean-Do was wheeled out to a strip of concrete with a view to anything, land, sea, lighthouse. This was a flawless metaphor. He had the use of an eye and his memory, all he needed to recreate the film of his life.
Everything is too beautiful—each therapist at the hospital, the mother of Jean-Do’s children, his children, his lover, the imagined 19th century woman at the hospital with the perfect blue satin ruffles to match the perfect waves of the sea. Recursive, lovely crosses hanging from almost every female neck. But Schnabel does not let all this beauty go totally unchecked—Jean-Do’s Helena Christensen-esque lover Henriette is banal, buying a horrible Lourdes virgin lamp; the red light it casts is a damning commentary on their relationship. And when we see her at the end of the film in a flicker, claiming she was “always there,” we know it to be true in only the worst way.
Finally, it seems to me everything in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a more attenuated version of the writing process. In our imaginations, we can free-float in our most lush memories, every color as superbright as those in this film. But to write them out is brutally difficult (the rhythm of a sentence vs. the rhythm of a camera pan). So as Jean-Do squeezes out his few sentences a day I kept thinking, that’s a pretty good output. He even requests a book by Graham Greene, the model of writing diligence, who produced 500 words a day or bust. In the end, Jean-Do makes a slender, vivid and moving book in less than a year. Or a book I assume to be vivid and moving—I just watched the movie.