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Savage Grace

Two wonderful meditations—from Julian Schnabel and Tamara Jenkins—on life slipping away.


Illustration by Wes Duvall  

In the year between the stroke that left him paralyzed and the death from pneumonia that came two days after his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was published, Jean-Dominique Bauby told his ex-wife (via the fluttering lash of one eye) that he wanted to see his story on the screen. I think—I know—he’d be over the moon about Julian Schnabel’s movie. He’d be laughing so hard he’d need his throat continually suctioned. For all his anguish, Bauby (Jean-Do, familiarly) was a comedian behind the one eye that wasn’t stitched up. Here he is on the day he lost the other: “I have known gentler awakenings. When I came to that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock.” Jean-Do can only communicate to the outside world by blinking, but in the film we hear the voice inside his head, a voice that’s acid, impish, sexy. In the first third, we see the world from his vantage (we see that ghastly surgery from behind the doomed eye), and when we catch our first glimpse of his face—at the same instant he does, as a reflection in a window—it’s a thunderous disjunction. The exposed eye bulges, like a shrunken head’s, while the mouth has slid entirely over to one side. But our gasp becomes a giggle when we hear Jean-Do’s own characterization: “I look like something in a jar of formaldehyde.”

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel re-creates Jean-Do’s constricted universe from the inside out, and the film becomes an act of sympathetic disjunction. Whatever Schnabel’s posturings as a painter, he’s a major film director, alive not only to light and texture but to characters’ emotions—which twist the light and warp the textures and permeate the canvas. Early in the movie, he and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, play catch-as-catch-can the way their immobilized protagonist must have: The screen is half in, half out of focus; figures slant back, then loom in the foreground, peering into the camera to speak to the man who can’t answer. “Think of me as a friend,” says a neurologist. “Just be a doctor,” says the voice in Jean-Do’s head.

Soon, two gorgeous women therapists (Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who’s also Schnabel’s wife) lean in, their cleavage at the bottom of Jean-Do’s eye line, and that inner voice asks, “Am I in heaven?” Quite the reverse, actually. Before his stroke, Bauby was editor of French Elle, and Schnabel has no problem evoking his protagonist’s hungry Male Gaze. The camera fixes on the trembling white thighs of Jean-Do’s ex-wife, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), so close yet impossible to touch. The distance can be bridged, but only in flights of fantasy—that’s the butterfly part of the title. He escapes into memories, too, like the one in which he shaves his elderly dad (the great Max von Sydow): The old man, raging against the dying of the light, never dreams that his son’s body will disintegrate faster than his own.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay incorporates chunks of the book, but in the most cinematic way imaginable. The second half of the film focuses on its writing—as Jean-Do learns to dictate his memoir, one letter at a time. No, that’s misleading. His assistant, Claude (Anne Consigny, another beauty), runs through a special alphabet (the letters arranged from most to least common), and Jean-Do blinks when she comes to the one he wants. Then they do it all over again. It’s a little depressing to pick up the paperback and read this blurb from the Financial Times: “You read it at one go, so gripping is the voyage to the inner heart and mind.” I mean, let’s just slow down here—every word is precious.

As Jean-Do, Mathieu Amalric is heartbreaking in both his incarnations—as the lover in flashbacks and the légume (his word) in the present. It’s his boyishness that gets to you: At 43, he has been hurled into the final stages of life before having had the chance to grow up, to atone, to contemplate his own mortality. Schnabel has said he wants The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to be a kind of “self-help device that can help you handle your own death”—in part by reminding us how far we are from the surface of our own lives. The film is a masterpiece in which “locked-in” syndrome becomes the human condition.

Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages is a super-bleak family drama about fortyish unmarried siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who must put their estranged but increasingly helpless old father (Philip Bosco) into a convalescent facility—or it would be super-bleak if all those frogs didn’t keep leaping out of the characters’ mouths. As a hospital administrator scribbles on the admission form, Linney’s Wendy reads the logo on the pen and brightly pipes up, “Xanax! I take that!” (Silence.) “For anxiety!” (Long silence.) Wendy is a playwright—a struggling playwright—and very endearing in her theatrical way, although her guarded brother, Jon, a professor of theater, finds her blabbiness embarrassing, and her father would be indifferent even if he weren’t in the early stages of dementia. “Savage” is the family name, by the way. You don’t fully register that until an administrator greets the three with a cheerful, “You must be the Savages!”

The Savages is a delightful movie—the perfect companion piece (and antidote) to the year’s other superb convalescent-dementia picture, Away From Her. Jenkins did one-woman shows before moving into film directing with Slums of Beverly Hills, which told the story of her nomadic childhood with a dad who shuttled her and two brothers from one cheap dive to another in the 90210 Zip Code because he wanted them to be educated in the best schools. The Savages is a big leap forward; the funny bubbles up from the sad, the sad gives the funny weight. Jon and Wendy (the names are a wink at Peter Pan) have never managed to leave their ridiculous upbringing behind, but the villain of their story—the one they should be confronting, blaming—isn’t really there.

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