Jean-Dominique Bauby, Jean-Do to his friends, lived a life many middle-aged men would envy. As editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, his career was filled with beautiful high-fashion models, editorial meetings, glamour photo shoots, sports cars zooming down Paris boulevards, a loving wife and two children, a country home, and all the trimmings of a fast-lane communications-industry job providing frivolous-but-fun content to the sophisticated readership of a glossy print publication. By all accounts, Bauby had a lively sense of humor and was physically vigorous — he had to be, to keep up with his wife, his mistress, and various girlfriends.
Then one morning at age 43 he awakened unable to speak or to move a muscle as the result of a stroke. Director Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon) shows what happened to the paralyzed Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, beginning with that moment. It's an inventive, challenging, at times emotionally bracing film, audaciously staged and laudably anti-clichéd in its character particulars, yet destined to be more admired than beloved.
That's because we find it difficult to really sympathize with Bauby. Using an impressive array of narrative devices involving point-of-view shots, stream-of-consciousness images, numerous flashbacks, and a luscious jukebox of tunes (Velvet Underground, Nino Rota soundtracks, Tom Waits, the love theme from Kubrick's Lolita, etc.), director Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) guide us through the details of Bauby's painstaking rehabilitation.
His mind works perfectly. Slowly but surely, he learns to use his left eyelid — his only voluntarily moving part — to communicate by a time-consuming method of letter-by-letter signaling and dictation. In this manner, he manages to write the eponymous autobiography, evidently a work designed to inspire love of life, even if the memories of that life are practically all that remain.
Bauby is aided in his endeavors by therapists Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz López Garmendia, the director's wife in real life), both of whom are stunners. His lovely wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) has to compete for his attention with his equally beautiful mistress Inès (Agathe de la Fontaine). Thus, surrounded by babes — does he know any unattractive women? — Bauby explores his feelings seemingly for the first time in his hitherto hectic life. He was a lucky man, his luck ran out but he survived, and now, belatedly, he's grateful for the things he took for granted. On the sidelines, dispensing crusty advice, is his aged father Papinou, another character acting gem by the ubiquitous Max von Sydow.
Charlie Chaplin, in writing about a scene in his film City Lights, once described his theory of comedy in terms of a sight gag — that to see a rich man slip on a banana peel and fall is funny, but to witness that same pratfall happening to, say, a poor washerwoman would be pathetic in the extreme. A variation on that stratagem applies to the character of Jean-Do Bauby. To have a rich, handsome man with a glamorous life suddenly become paralyzed and lose his ability to enjoy the physical side of that life is arguably tragic; but is Bauby's fate any more poignant because it happened to him rather than to a poor, simple farmer leading a nowhere existence? Does director Schnabel know any poor farmers? That's the shadow of doubt hanging over The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it proves insurmountable. We can't feel too sorry for a high-roller like Bauby no matter what happens to him.
His memories are his salvation, and they're the best part of the drama. Actor Amalric, so effective in Munich and Kings and Queen, doesn't really have much to do here besides act with his left eye, but New York painter-turned-filmmaker Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) sees to it that his flashbacks illuminate Bauby's soul for all to see. It is ridiculous to imagine the role going to Johnny Depp, as originally planned. Von Sydow, as usual, comes close to stealing the movie, and the eye-candy troika of Seigner, Croze, and de la Fontaine demonstrate what the invalid is missing. More nice character work by Niels Arestrup as Bauby's manager Roussin, and the late Jean-Pierre Cassel in the dual cameo of Father Lucian and a vendor at the shrine of Lourdes.
Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War tells another true story of a lucky man, the US congressman of the title. Like Bauby, he led the lush life with relish; unlike the Frenchman, his decisions cost many lives as well as millions of dollars; and unlike the paralyzed former sinner, he lived to regret his transgressions.
From the moment we meet Rep. Wilson (D-Texas) snorting coke in a Vegas hotel hot tub full of hookers and lobbyists, we rejoice in the knowledge that director Nichols, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (adapting George Crile's book), and American Everyman Tom Hanks are treating us to a cook's tour of high-larious folly and corruption in the houses of power, à la Wagging the Dog, The Manchurian Candidate, et al. Congressman Wilson, you'll recall, was the prime mover of the covert American effort to aid the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. His main objective: killin' Russians. Things played out differently in the long run than Wilson planned, but that's the way it goes in Afghanistan.
Lordy, the places Charlie goes and the people he meets. Horny right-wing heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, making a glossy transition to character actor) is the brains behind the secret operation, with ol' Charlie (Hanks) pulling the governmental levers. CIA loose cannon Gust Avrakotos aka "Gus Avocado" (Philip Seymour Hoffman, having a great year) comes aboard to smooth things out and hog the best lines of dialogue. Ned Beatty as Doc Long, another pol on the make; Indian actor Om Puri as Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq; Erick Avari as an Israeli gantseh macher; and cutie-pie Shiri Appleby as Jailbait, one of Wilson's staffers, all collaborate merrily. Set the irony meter at eleven and enjoy.
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