Liberating Cocoon

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'Diving Bell and Butterfly' Offers Singular Perspective of Extreme Paralysis

It’s rare these days that I walk out of the screening room feeling awestruck, but ce-lebrity artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls,” “Basquiat”) has painted a masterpiece with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The story is an adaptation of the memoirs of dashing French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was nearly entirely paralyzed by a stroke at the prime of his life.

Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) is cursed with the rare “locked-in syndrome,” in which his mental faculties are intact, but his body is forever trapped in a “diving bell.” Schnabel creates a stunning film in which the viewer lives through the limited, suffocating perspective of that diving bell. For presenting such an innovative singular perspective, Schnabel won Best Director at Cannes in 2007. His director of photography, Janusz Kaminski (Oscar winner for “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and a favorite of Steven Spielberg), also nabbed the Technical Grand Prize.

Bauby’s internal thoughts allow him to serve as a narrator for the film, which opens at the time of his stroke. His doctor, medical staff and guests speak to him, but only the audience hears his mental responses. At first, Bauby is understandably depressed. He resists efforts by physical and speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze of “Maelström” and “The Barbarian Invasions”) to help him, though he appreciates their beauty.

Eventually, he succumbs to Henriette, working out a form of communication whereas she goes through the alphabet’s letters, ordered in terms of frequency. He in turn blinks his one good eye to choose a letter, allowing him to spell out words. Bauby painstakingly “dictates” his life story to an assistant, Claude (Anne Consigny), fulfilling a pre-existing contract he has with a book publisher. It’s through his memories and his imagination that Bauby escapes the physical prison of the diving bell—and the audience is taken through moments of an extraordinary life, prematurely curtailed.

The all-star ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Emmanuelle Seigner (“La Vie en Rose,” “Place Vendôme,” “Bitter Moon,” “Frantic”) is a pillar of strength as Céline, the mother of Bauby’s three children. She remains by his side despite her suffering, which includes his infidelity and abandoning her for his mistress, Josephine (Marina Hands). Living legend Max von Sydow (“The Seventh Seal”) plays Bauby’s father with a bravura performance recalling his glory days.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) (French; 112 min.) Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema

5 out of 5 stars

Full-Circle ‘Kite Runner’

The vast majority of the time, a book turned into a film fails to meet the high expectations of the book’s fans. I must admit that I haven’t read Khaled Hosseini’s highly adored novel, “The Kite Runner,” so I can’t make any comparisons. I can only say that director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”) has made one fine film. He and writer David Benioff have taken great care to create a detailed vision that successfully translates Hosseini’s pages to the screen, with Forster pulling subtle, rich performances from his stable of actors.

In 2000, Amir (Khalid Abdalla of “United 93”), a writer in California, is called by his father’s friend, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub of “Crash”), to return to his homeland of Afghanistan, which is still controlled by the Taliban. Next, we flash back to 1978 Kabul, a thriving city before the wars yet to come. Amir’s father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), a secular intellectual, is kind but emotionally out of touch with his son. The young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) is best friends with Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmood-zada), the son of the family’s longtime servant, Ali.

They spend much of their time flying kites, like other boys in the neighborhood. Hassan is the foremost kite runner, who best knows when a kite will return to the ground. That makes him the target of jealousy from Assef, a neighborhood bully who brutally attacks Hassan. Amir does nothing to stop it, resulting in a sense of guilt that turns into anger toward Hassan, which manifests into a betrayal that splits the friends and their families.

The film then jumps to the late 1980s back in California, where Amir’s family has emigrated. Finally, it returns to 2000 in Kabul, a city wrecked by years of war and Taliban rule. Because of time constraints, these sections are shorter than they are in the book, but they still add depth and richness to the sweeping epic. The audience feels like they’re living and walking in the places presented on screen. Another notable difference from the book is that Forster has removed the narrator’s voice, leaving the film’s beautiful visuals to do much of the storytelling.

The Kite Runner (English, Dari, Pashtu, Urdu and Russian with subtitles; 122 min.; scope) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

‘Persepolis’: Political Animation

We all know animation is not just for kids anymore, but “Persepolis” raises the bar. Writer-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud adapted the film from Satrapi’s graphic novel. The relatively simplified, though certainly well-drawn, black-and-white animation film is a refreshing stylistic change from the über-realistic animation films recently in vogue. As an autobiographical account, Satrapi’s personal details make the story very authentic, while a stellar team provides the lively voiceovers that complete the characters.

In 1978 Tehran, the unpopular Shah’s dictatorial rule of Iran is about to fall to the Islamic Revolution, which promises a better life for the people. Against this backdrop, only child Marjane leads a happy life with her doting intellectual parents. As the adults talk politics, young Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) interjects, “I like the Shah,” repeating what she was taught in school. Her Westernized, intellectual parents, Ebi (Simon Abkarian) and Tadji (Catherine Deneuve), take the time to educate their only child about Iranian politics and history.

They, along with her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), support Marjane’s independent streak, although they do get worried that she might be just a little too rebellious. That’s especially true when the Islamic Revolution brings a regime that they consider to be even more repressive than that of the Shah. The family has had a history of family members imprisoned or even executed by various regimes.

So at 14, Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) is sent to Vienna for her protection. In part because of her rebellious streak, she manages to get into some trouble there, too. She comes of age, and it’s not easy. Marjane meets people from all over the world, but she is still trying to figure out her place in that world. When she reaches rock bottom in Vienna as a young adult, she returns to Tehran to try out a life at home—finding that she is just as much of an outsider in Vienna as she is in her homeland.

Persepolis (French, English, Persian and German with subtitles; 95 min.) Opens Fri., Jan. 18 Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

Film | Neu The Goethe-Institut organizes the annual German-language festival of new films, this year dubbed “Film | Neu.” The 10 films screen Jan. 18 to 24 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Titles include “Grave Decisions” and “To the Limit,” with other screenings, events and guests to be announced. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

Iranian Film Festival The 12th annual Iranian Film Festival returns to the Freer Gallery of Art from Jan. 4 to 27, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and cosponsored by the ILEX Foundation. The festival opens with “Persian Carpet,” an omnibus film made up of many different threads, including short films by acclaimed directors such as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Bahram Bayzai, Jafar Panahi, Bahman Farmanara, Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Dariush Mehrjui and others. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

National Gallery of Art The National Gallery offers its regular art on film series with: “Edward II” (Jan. 4 and 6), about Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play; “J.M.W. Turner and Film” (Jan. 5), a two-part film looking at the British landscape painter’s influence on contemporary filmmakers; “The Gates” (Jan. 13), with artist-team Christo and Jean-Claude Gates in person for the screening of their HBO documentary; and the International Festival of Films on Art (Jan. 26 and 27), devoted to films on fine art, architecture, music, dance and cinema.

Also, from Jan. 11 to Feb. 3, “England’s New Wave, 1958-1964” presents the explosion of young British filmmakers who tackled groundbreaking material by fellow young writers with whom they shared a sense of disillusionment. (202) 737-4215, www.nga.gov

AFI Silver Theatre Through Jan. 10, “RIALTO REDUX: Rialto Pictures 10th Anniversary”—a series organized by the Museum of Modern Art—revisits classic and first-run titles distributed by Rialto over the past 10 years. Titles include “Rififi,” “Army of Shadows,” “Bob le Flambeur,” “Godzilla,” “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” “Nights of Cabiria” and “Masculine, Feminine.”

Also, through Jan. 7, “Monty Python at the Movies” looks back at “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Life of Bryan,” “The Meaning of Life” and “And Now for Something Completely Different.” (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999