Director Julian Schnabel's adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir begins sublimely. Charles Trenet croons "La Mer" over opening credits, and his song floats through shadows of bone and muscle. The X-rays, in grayish black and white, are striking in themselves; when set to a jaunty, Gallic pop tune of 1946 vintage, sight and sound merge into a nifty emblem for the movie's subject—a bon vivant confronting mortality.
Bauby, editor-in-chief of Elle , suffered a debilitating stroke in his early 40s that paralyzed him entirely, save for his left eye. That's how we enter the movie's world, through the fluttering of that eyelid as it closes and opens. Schnabel uses a swing-and-tilt lens to achieve stunning distortion effects: blurring and rippling, point-of-view shots as Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens before a team of doctors in a blue-green hospital room.
Schnabel had sense enough to cast extraordinarily comely actresses in key roles. Emmanuelle Seigner brings an haute couture poignancy to Céline, the never-wed mother of Bauby's children. Physical and speech therapists are unlikely to be any lovelier than Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz López Garmendia are here. Bauby's memoir, blinked out a letter at a time, was filled with fantasies and dreams; in the best of these onscreen, the gourmand Bauby, now fed through a tube, imagines a lavish meal in which he and one of the therapists smear oysters on the half-shell into each other's mouths, before exuberantly kissing across the table.
But there's a problem. In the pages of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly , what endures is the testament of a romantic sensibility whose desires ranged from elite to plebeian and back again. Amalric, who's an ideal choice for the role, doesn't fully inhabit Bauby, because of what Ronald Harwood's screenplay leaves out: the author's voice, his humor. The movie misses the spirit of the man.
Schnabel and Harwood jettison the tense, cinematically conceived re-creation of Bauby's final hours before the stroke, the dramatic high point of the late memoirist's 132-page masterpiece. Schnabel, in fact, doesn't know how to end the picture—he cranks up Joe Strummer on the soundtrack (awful choice!) and pulls in stock glacier footage. Schnabel's liberties recall Sean Penn's misreading of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild . Diving Bell isn't nearly the hash that Penn wrought from Chris McCandless' fatal Alaskan sojourn; flaws and all, Schnabel's endeavor merits a matinee. But both films, by nature of the compromises they make, raise the same question: Don't these poor bastards who die young deserve better endings in their movies than they had in their lives? PG-13.
screens at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 3. The showing is limited to members of the NW Film Center's Silver Screen Club. The movie opens at Fox Tower on Jan. 11.