Beyond the Multiplex

In this interview and podcast, Julian Schnabel hangs by the pool in his pajamas and talks about his inspiring, triumphant film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 23, 2007 9:25PM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.

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On the day after his big triumph here with "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Julian Schnabel received a small group of reporters poolside at the Hotel Martinez, probably the most deluxe of all the overpriced hotels along the Croisette. He wasn't wearing his trademark bathrobe. It was pretty hot for that here on Wednesday, so he was just in pajamas.

Schnabel is a theatrical, larger-than-life character who invites a degree of dislike and ridicule, and even seems to thrive on it. He stays in fancy hotels (while rarely dressing in actual clothes), makes and spends large sums of money, and has become a controversial but unavoidable artist in two different media. When the hordes of paparazzi and gawkers outside the fence began screaming at some celebrity entering or leaving the Martinez during our interview, Schnabel stood up and called out at them, "Shut up! Fucking cocksuckers!" (Click here to listen to a podcast of the interview.)

Earlier, he had told us that his wife had given him a Xanax before the Tuesday night premiere, so that he could barely stay awake through his own movie, and actually fell down during the 20-minute standing ovation that followed it. That's vintage Schnabel, following the urge to play the buffoon at the apex of his directing career. During the interview, he recalled a memorable critic's quote from the '80s, when his oversize, crockery-encrusted paintings first made him famous: "Julian Schnabel knows how to make garbage out of garbage." ("I thought that was pretty good!" he crowed.)

Whatever you make of Schnabel as a painter or a self-invented celebrity -- his previous jobs have included short-order cook and New York cab driver -- it's time to consider the once-unlikely proposition that he's a really important filmmaker. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," based on a remarkable memoir of severe paralysis written by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, formerly the editor of French Elle, is definitely not garbage out of garbage. It's an exhilarating, heartbreaking, wonderfully visual big-screen translation of an inherently uncinematic premise: a man so trapped in his own body he can only control one eye.

Many of the things one could say about Schnabel's film border on hackneyed phrases, but the movie itself never does. It's about the prodigious mystery of being alive, and about facing the terror of death with honesty and integrity. It's about the impossible, alchemical magic of artistic creation, and about the ways all of us, like Jean-Do (who is amazingly played by elfin French actor Mathieu Amalric), are trapped in our own subjectivity and yearn to communicate with the world outside.

Bauby's title ("Le Scaphandre et le papillon," in French) stemmed from his realization that while his body had become a prison, like a deep-sea diving suit in which he was permanently trapped, his imagination and his memory could fly wherever he wanted to go. Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski begin the film from Jean-Do's stringently limited point of view as he wakes from a three-week coma, unable to move his head and seeing the world through one blurred eyeball. He begins to talk to his doctors, only to realize: They can't hear him! Gradually, as Jean-Do comes to grips with his radically transformed body and self, and with the fact that his interior monologues can't come out, the movie opens up like a newly sprouted plant finding the sun.

There's a severe kind of poetry to Jean-Do's long struggle to communicate, thanks to a special alphabetic system devised by his speech therapist (played by Marie-Josée Croze). But we've seen that kind of thing in other films dealing with severe disability. Schnabel balances Jean-Do's nearly unbearable diving-bell reality with his colorful dreams, fantasies and memories, which assume an explosive, liberatory, sometimes terrible power. As in Schnabel's earlier films, "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls," he's put together a wonderful soundtrack, ranging from Nino Rota's classic film scores to U2, Tom Waits and the Velvet Underground.

Many people here have asked Schnabel why he chose to make this film in French, thereby reducing its commercial prospects by many orders of magnitude. At first it does sound like some kind of egotistical Europhile stunt, an attempt to establish his own cosmopolitanism on a grand scale. When a reporter from Boston asked him about this at the festival's official press conference, Schnabel made a point of answering in perfectly capable French. At the Martinez he stuck to English, but insisted that casting Amalric and shooting in France was a question of integrity.

"Nobody wanted me to make this movie in French," Schnabel told us. "When the people from Pathé [the French studio] spoke to me, I said, 'I want to make a French movie.' They said, 'We want you to make an American movie!'"

After visiting the hospital in Berck-sur-Mer, on the bleak but impressive coast of Normandy, where Bauby spent his last year, Schnabel decided he could only shoot the film there. "You can't manufacture a landscape like that, and architecture like that," he said. "This man sat in that place, and when the tide went out, it looked like he was sitting on the moon. To try to reconstruct that in California somewhere, or to send Americans and English actors to France and have them speak with a French accent -- and then have French people watch the movie with subtitles -- that seemed absurd to me."

Even when Johnny Depp was attached to the film, Schnabel says, the idea was that "Johnny was going to be with me in France, and we would have surrounded him with French people." When Depp apparently decided that a third "Pirates of the Caribbean" feature was a safer bet, Schnabel says that his producer, Kathleen Kennedy, had grave doubts about ever making the film. She was interested in other name actors, including George Clooney and Eric Bana. "Clooney has never had a role like that, and that could have been interesting," Schnabel said with underwhelming politeness. "He's a nice man."

Much of the drama and comedy in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" arises from the group of women that surround Bauby before and after his accident: the still-loyal mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seignier), the girlfriend who may be the love of his life (Agathe de La Fontaine) who finds herself unable to face him, Croze's speech therapist, the physical therapist played by Olatz López Garmendia, who happens to be Schnabel's wife. This almost farcical situation -- a group of attractive women clustered around a guy who can only move one eye -- becomes to some degree the film's central subject.

"Ultimately, I think I ended up making a film about women," Schnabel said. "There's something about Fellini's '8 1/2' here. I didn't think about that until I was casting the movie, and then I thought, 'God, there's a lot of women in this movie!' If people thought I was a homosexual when I made 'Before Night Falls,' with all those gorgeous guys in the movie, maybe they'll think I'm a sex maniac now. But I figured, why not? I made a film about a black man and his difficulty in the white art world in New York ['Basquiat'], and then about the Cuban revolution through the eyes of a homosexual person. So I might as well make a film about women from the perspective of a one-eyed paralyzed guy."

Schnabel also says that "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is his most autobiographical film, both in that it's about the inherent difficulty of all artistic creation -- Jean-Do's version of that problem being the most extreme you can imagine -- and that it's about confronting his own fear of death. Making films, he observes wryly, isn't his day job. "I can make more money in one afternoon when I make a painting than I did the whole year making this movie. I didn't do it for the dough. I did it because my father was terrified of death when he died, and I thought, if only I could have done something to help him."

I suppose there's something perverse or affected about sitting around the pool in Cannes talking about death with a famous painter in his pajamas (who's mooching cigarettes from his interviewers), but I'll tell you what, it didn't feel that way at the time. Schnabel's movie thrilled me, reduced me to tears, made me feel re-energized and profoundly grateful to be alive. It was as close to a life-changing experience as you can have at a film festival. So if Julian Schnabel wants to behave like a ridiculous character from a Hemingway novel, I say more power to him. Just make more movies, dude.

Jean-Dominique Bauby lived only about a year with his severe disability, but he was able to complete his memoir, which became an international bestseller. (He died just 10 days after its French publication.) As Schnabel observes, it was a book written by a man on the very edge of human life, almost literally a message from beyond. "What he was able to do -- he was kind of talking to us from the grave," said Schnabel. "That's unusual, because most people don't. He was able to talk about the things he regretted, and about how to grab onto the present and make something out of it. If I could have shown this to my dad, he might have thought, 'OK, you know what? I'm going to pass through this thing. I'm going to go back up into the side of the glacier and be part of everything. I'm not going to be so scared.'"

* * * * For more coverage of the Cannes Film Festival, click here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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