Thursday, February 28, 2008

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon

by Val Bitici

A rush of excitement hits me as I walk the red carpet past paparazzi into the Ziegfeld Theatre for the premier of Julian Schnabel’s film Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon. When I enter the theater, I am not at all surprised to see it filled with the top names of fashion, art and film. On one side of the room Zac Posen is shaking hands with Matt Dillon, while three rows in front of him Mario Testino is sitting in an aisle seat engrossed in deep conversation with a well-dressed friend. I locate my assigned seat and am switching off my cell phone as a woman sits in the empty seat next to me. Turning to face her, I smile and say a neighborly “hello” before realizing that it is Chloë Sevigny, award winning actress and style icon. I suppress a gasp of incredulity and try to act normal. After Mr. Schnabel makes a speech describing the inspiration he gleaned from his relationship with his father to make the film, the lights dim and Chloë and I settle into our seats.

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon is a moving account of human suffering and curtailed existence. Actor Mathieu Amalric captivates us as Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle editor-in-chief whose sparkling life is unexpectedly brought to a standstill by a paralyzing stroke. Suffering from “locked-in” syndrome, Bauby is left with physical control over only his left eye and his mind. Schnabel’s adaptation of the book, written by the almost completely impaired Bauby after his stroke, is a chronicle of life, past and present, almost entirely through the patient’s perspective. Bauby communicated his story with the help of a transcriber who said the letters of the alphabet and waited for him to blink at hearing each letter he wanted to use. Thus slowly and painstakingly he authored the tremendous accomplishment Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon.

Schnabel’s vision of this unique record comes together as he makes the right choices with cinematography, lighting, and even language. Originally written in English by Ron Harwood, the script was translated into French per Schnabel’s adamant request to remain true to Bauby’s story. The effect is one of complete entrapment in the body and mind of the former magazine editor. From the first moment we meet the main character as he catches a glimpse of his pale, horrific appearance in a mirror, we see all that he sees and feel all that he feels. Trapped in his thoughts, Bauby constantly travels through memory and reality as he relives his past and examines his present circumstances. As he straddles the line between these worlds, Bauby takes the viewers along for an intense roller-coaster ride of emotions. Otherwise known as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel’s film captures poignantly the main character’s simultaneous sense of bodily entrapment and freedom of imagination. While imprisoned as if in a diving bell by his stroke, Bauby is also set free like a butterfly through his own thoughts. I do not think it possible for Schnabel, or anyone else, to pay a more beautiful homage to Bauby and his literary masterpiece. As everyone else in the Ziegfeld that evening, Chloë and I found ourselves teary eyed with both sorrow and hope as the Oscar-nominated film came to an end.

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