Savage Grace

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

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.

Marie-Joseé Croze in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.Photo: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films

Bosco doesn’t soften this man or make him easy to read. He has glimmers of awareness, but it’s not in his interest to be too cognizant—it would open him up to rebuke. As in Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited, the siblings have to parent each other, and it’s Wendy and Jon’s push-me-pull-you banter that gives you hope as all the other relationships fall away.

Linney has been this winsome and accessible once before—in You Can Count on Me. But was she this great a comedienne there? Watch Wendy make off with office supplies, tell whopper after whopper to her brother and married lover (Peter Friedman), and bat her blue eyes innocently. Watch her leave her father at the convalescent home and overdramatize—“We are horrible, horrible, horrible people!”—and yet mean every word. Hoffman is the best psychodrama dancing partner imaginable. In Capote and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he earned foreign-word superlatives: “Bravura!” “Tour de force!” In The Savages, he’s just as good but without the stylization—the tricks—to hide behind. You feel as if you’re watching him—thoughtful, childish, moody, embarrassed about his body, his groggy affect a way of keeping the world at bay. There’s a piano motif by Stephen Trask that captures the movie perfectly—melancholy yet sprightly, it sends you home smiling.

The Mist, based on a Stephen King novella, is a derivative horror picture that somehow rises to the level of a primal scream. The premise is simple, by which I mean both easy to understand and feeble-minded. After a violent storm, an artist played by Thomas Jane says to his wife, “Hey, honey, you ever seen mist like that on the lake? Coming from the direction of that supersecret army lab?” (Words to that effect.) The wife says, “No, that is odd.” And the husband says, “Oh, well, better take the truck into town and pick up some supplies at the supermarket. See you in a flash.” He doesn’t. Shortly after he and his young son (Nathan Gamble) arrive at the crowded market, a man dashes in, screaming, “There’s something in the mist!”

Your reaction to that will either be, “Oooh, scary,” or “Wow, cheesy,” but it’s hard to laugh off the thunderous rattling of the market’s huge windows or the eeriness of the silence that follows. The attacks of the sundry creatures are shot and edited with blistering intensity; they have a fury that’s biblical. The director, Frank Darabont, steals a lot of Steven Spielberg’s tropes—the key image of people (or things) melting into and out of the mist is right out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But Spielberg, by comparison, is a cockeyed optimist. Even his War of the Worlds suggests that a fierce commitment to family will help humanity survive an alien onslaught. The Mist is not so sanguine.

The idea of a bunch of disparate people trapped in an enclosed space is a wheezy horror staple, but the actors are first-rate—among them Andre Braugher as a suspicious city lawyer, Laurie Holden as the new teacher in town who thinks people are basically good, and Toby Jones as the assistant store manager who thinks they’re basically bat-shit. Looming over all is Marcia Gay Harden as the town’s religious fanatic. She says the mist is God’s vengeance on a secular society for its wicked ways—echoing remarks made by Pat Robertson after 9/11. As the beasts start disemboweling people, she begins to attract a following, from a rapt young woman to a butcher with a knife. The threats are from without and within.

Usually, kids in genre movies range from stilted to adequate, but Gamble—who played one of the affluent children in Babel—is so credible it’s almost unfair. You can’t defend yourself against his scenes with Jane, even though you probably should. The Mist builds toward a climax so wrenching that I hesitate to recommend the film, but I think Darabont earns his vision. He touches on so many sore spots: schisms of class and religion, fear of the technology’s impact on the environment, fear of God’s vengeance—or the vengeance of people on behalf of their gods. The movie could be called The Miasma.

Film Forum is screening Alfred Hitchcock’s second-rate but underrated Saboteur and, with it, Matthew Sussman’s brief, loving tribute Who Is Norman Lloyd?, about the now 93-year-old actor who plays the creepy title character. In plummy, actorly tones, Lloyd reflects on Welles and Chaplin and Renoir—and that actors’ godsend, the recurring role on a hit TV show. (He was the hospital patriarch in St. Elsewhere.) I wish there were more documentaries like this, about “supporting” actors. They hold the spotlight beautifully.

Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his memoir using only his left eyelid and an alphabet board, but there are other ways that locked-in patients (who are fully conscious but immobile and mute) may be able to communicate. Researchers are currently looking into planting electrodes into patients’ brains to translate impulse activity (“thoughts”) to a computer that produces speech. Only two known locked-in cases have successfully returned to work: A lawyer blinked his eyes in Morse code, and a teacher used a mouth stick to trigger an electronic voice device.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel. Miramax Films. PG-13.

The Savages
Directed by Tamara Jenkins. Fox Searchlight Pictures. R.

The Mist
Directed by Frank Darabont. The Weinstein Company. R.


Savage Grace