Julian’s Jewel

The term "stroke of luck" could not have taken on a more odious oxymoronic meaning than it did for French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, at 43, in 1995, was dealt an unfashionable fillip by life — a freakish stroke that left him painfully paralyzed, with the exception of his left eye.

And for a man who always had an eye for the ladies, the outlandish irony was not lost on the roguish raconteur, now speechless and powerless to parry the paralysis with the pariah name of locked-in syndrome.

But auteur/outre artist Julian Schnabel has locked into Bauby's life, setting his sights on this one-eyed wonder with much wizardry. He has directed an audaciously adapted version of Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in what may be the year's best movie, which opens this Friday.

At times uncomfortable, always unconventional, yet unyielding in its beauty and brooding paradoxes, "The Diving Bell" dives into the deep end of memory and imagination. It is deeply moving as it depicts the physical claustrophobia and frustration suffered by Bauby even as he is finally, fatefully, permitted to let his imagination fly and soar to wherever and whatever he wants.

"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" was the musical amalgam of poetry and art heartbreakingly told by children confined at the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust; yet, ironically, it is the benign butterfly that Bauby bounces through his imagination, the butterfly he sees and hears and needs — to be set free of the cadaver encasing his mind.

Art in the eye of the beholder? Art is the eye of the beholder. And it is in the blink of that eye — an astounding alphabet system is devised for this once alpha male laid low, by his therapists at a seaside French hospital, allowing him to communicate — that helps Bauby balance hell and heaven, with a wink of humor not far from his thoughts.

A Vibrant Voice
Who better than Schnabel, schmearing his bagel even as we speak in a Center City hotel, to spread the art of Bell from autobiography to auteuristic sensation. Julian's jewel: As inspiring as the book is, the movie gives Bauby's vision breadth and his silenced panache a vibrant voice.

The Brooklyn-born Schnabel brooks no linear flight that would impede his 360-degree design of life limned with much lust and laughter. The pajama-clad iconoclast splashes through life watching rainbows go into retreat at his approach. His colorful life as artist/director/hotel designer/musician has a special spectrum of thought that not all can make sense of.

But for those who do — and see this film as an extension of his extensive imagery and imagination — the delight is in the discovery of genius in a jejune world, allowing the pain of a paralyzed patient to seep through his own point of view.

And that's the point: POV as POW?

Bauby is caught up in that captured state of mind in the beginning. But as he blinks his book into birth, he finds focus amid the blur of blather he hears outside his vegetative state, and vanquishes the vicissitudes that have made the erstwhile philanderer ever the more philosophical.

Philosophical, too, is Schnabel, who has segued from broken ceramic plate paintings to the canvas of broken bodies and lives as shown on screen now. "It was when I was just 28 that I did 'The Patients and the Doctors,' " he says of his seminal 1977 work, his "first plate painting."

Who knew, he says with a wry smile, that he would now be dealing with such a focused topic on screen — to acclaim and accolades that just netted him best director honors at Cannes and a can-do aura that may lead all the way to Oscar with some golden highlights from last week's Golden Globe nom nods.

The third in a triptych of triumphs — "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls" came before — "Diving Bell" is a bellwether for what this artist attempts to say in all his work: "That there is hope," he declares.

Indeed, making this movie helped no one more than Schnabel himself at first. "It was a self-help device," he allows of directing a film soon after his father, with whom he shared a wonderful filial fealty, died.

"I used myself as a guinea pig."

Or maybe a kosher chicken? He concedes his Jewish sensibilities scent some of his work — and scenes from his childhood. (Both parents were actively involved in Hadassah and B'nai B'rith.)

But if the scent of his past permeates what he has done, he is now looking to perfume projects with a more international aroma. "Diving Bell" is redolent of rebirth, not retreat.

"Art," he says of Bauby, "saved this man from pain. He was drowning in his diving bell and escaped" a wordless waterworld through a wealth of wisdom imparted through his book.

Blink and it's gone? Blink — and it begins. "Art after all," avers Schnabel, "is a denial of death."

There was no denying Bauby's baby; his breakthrough book reportedly took more than 200,000 blinks to communicate and sold more than 150,000 copies soon after publication in March 1997.

Ten days later, the journalist died; 10 years later, the book is reborn.

But the film, as is to be expected of a Schnabel creation, was pushed rather than eased into existence. The director demanded the American film be made in French, much to the initial chagrin of the producers; adept at French, Johnny Depp was to be suited up for "Diving Bell" until something called "Pirates of the Caribbean" stole him away. ("He would have been terrific," says Schnabel. No worries, nor complaints from Schnabel; the director hit pay dirt: Mathieu Amalric is amazing as Bauby.)

Meanwhile, Ronald Harwood's English script was translated.

"He was not pleased," concedes the director of the writer. "He said, 'You hate writers'; not true at all. He wrote an excellent script, but it is my job to take that and do my version of it."

With an aversion to averaging out dreams and drama, and going for broke whether the medium be cracked pottery or seamless cinema, Schnabel has nudged his neo-Expressionist aesthetic onto the screen.

But this cineaste is no cynic; whether eyeing the pulsing soul in "Diving Bell" or devoting his next film to an orphanage in Israel run by Palestinian women, he has that Jewish germ that not even chicken soup can cure.

It's that ladle of life, filled with the broth of brotherhood. The condensed version?

Optimism, insists the artist schmearing the bagel once more while offering an un-Hollywood way out of the world's jam.



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