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Julian Schnabel’s Vie En Rose

He was the most famous—and controversial—painter of the eighties. But now, with a powerful new movie, and a pinkish Village palazzo, he’s thriving in two more media in which he makes beauty out of bombast.


The Palazzo Chupi, on West 11th Street, is like a building in a fairy tale, a soaring, gaudily colored massif with heavy twelve-foot doors and enough balconies to accommodate brigades of Mussolinis. Standing in front of it, looking up, you can imagine how Lemony Snicket’s orphans must have felt as they waited to be ushered into one of Count Olaf’s schemes: Who lives here?

The Palazzo Chupi (the name is on a plaque 25 feet up) is Julian Schnabel’s house, and it’s a characteristically bombastic structure. Built over the former stable in which he has lived since 1987, it’s the size of a seventeen-story building, with vast spaces for Schnabel (his studio could hold a good-sized townhouse, and then some) as well as four other like-minded buyers (Bono was seen touring the building this summer), all sharing a pool.

During the two years of its construction, Schnabel’s palazzo was sheathed in scaffolding and canvas. When it was finally unwrapped, many in the neighborhood were outraged by its scale and, especially, by its color. Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, called the color hot pink, which isn’t exactly true—it’s darker than that, and streaked with white, an accident that Schnabel, as has often been his method, decided he liked—but this is the kind of rhetorical excess Julian Schnabel has often inspired in his critics.

Around the same time as the unveiling in June, Schnabel won the Best Director award at Cannes for his third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s a film of elemental power, adapted from a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the rakish editor of French Elle. At age 43, Bauby had a stroke, leaving him paralyzed, with only the ability to move one eyelid. In a Normandy hospital, he learned to communicate by blinking and by this means managed to write his book, published days before his death in 1996. And by learning to explore his memory and imagination, he discovered a kind of freedom and humanity he’d never known as a prince of the Parisian fast life.

The imaginative promiscuity in Schnabel’s paintings that has so galled critics has here found a context to which it is perfectly suited. There are images of glaciers calving, of insects shot in extreme close-up. There are tubercular children; Napoleon’s niece, in period garb, big-wave surfing; and Bauby in his bathrobe enjoying a feast at a brasserie with his mistress. Other scenes in the movie are shot from the perspective of Bauby’s one functioning eye, and Schnabel uses this limitation to great painterly effect, playing with the frame and focus to re-create Bauby’s claustrophobia. The movie is unpredictable and chaotic—a sprawling, flowing flea market of images—but the effect is one of unity. The fact that it is in French (Schnabel had to improve his restaurant French with intensive lessons before shooting began), with subtitles, hardly gets in its way. Its real language is visual.

There is chaos, also, at the Palazzo Chupi today. Construction is far from complete, but Schnabel plans to spend the night here tonight—his first—so furniture and stacks of Schnabels are being moved in amid the construction debris. Schnabel is on a balcony outside the cavernous hall that will be his bedroom, where two enormous Schnabels—desert scenes with palms and elephants, with scrawled inscriptions about forgetting, in English and French—have been installed around a seven-foot fireplace. Schnabel is surrounded by workmen and assistants, working out how to install a series of columns and a stack of antique Moroccan window grates. He’s in purple pajamas with white piping, and leather slippers. With his curlicuing hair and elfin beard, the effect is both ridiculous and uncanny—Palazzo Chupi’s Willy Wonka. “We’re going to move in some furniture,” he says. “See if I can get my wife to come over.”

Schnabel walks over to the railing and looks out over the city. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “There was always neo-Classical architecture in the Village, and this place is not so dissimilar.” He points out a building a few blocks away and notes the similarity in color—which is true, in that both are in the red family.

Below us and slightly to the north is the meatpacking district, where Jack Schnabel, Julian’s father, spent much of his working life. Jack died of prostate cancer in 2004 at the age of 92, and lived with Schnabel for the last year of his life. Schnabel drew heavily on that experience in making The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In one scene, Bauby’s children play ball on the wide Normandy beach as he sits mute and bundled in a wheelchair, his face a fearsome Cubist mask. Another flashes back on a visit to his own invalid father, in which the younger shaved the older, as the older lectured him on his failed marriage. There’s a disturbing physicality to these images, the forced intimacies that infirmity imposes on people.

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