The Diving Bell and the Butterfly & The Bucket List

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly & The Bucket List featured image

by Marc Glassman.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon). Julian Schnabel, director. Ronald Harwood, script based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Starring: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Emmanuelle Seigner (Celine Desmoulin), Marie-Josee Croze (Henriette Durand), Anne Consigny (Claude), Isaach de Bankole (Laurent), Niels Arestrup (Roussin), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Father Lucien), Max von Sydow (Papinou)

The Bucket List. Rob Reiner, director. Justin Zackham, script. Starring: Jack Nicholson (Edward Cole), Morgan Freeman (Carter Chambers), Sean Hayes (Thomas), Beverly Todd (Virginia Chambers), Alfonso Freeman (Roger), Rowena King (Angelica)

Mortality must be on the mind of the film execs marketing Christmas movies this year. How else to explain The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Bucket List, two radically different features, being promoted just in time for winter’s main family event?

Will either film be a hit this season? Predicting winners is a mug’s game. It’s far more instructive to look at the similarities and differences between these two entries into the holiday sweepstakes.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or as its known in France, Le Scaphandre et le papillon is a beautifully rendered art film about a year in the life of a stroke survivor who is totally paralyzed except for the use of his left eye, which he can still blink. Apart from flashbacks, the entire film takes place in a hospital.

The Bucket List, a bizarre entry into the buddies on the road genre, is about two old coots who decide to embrace life after being informed that they’re dying of cancer. The film starts in a hospital but moves on to the duo going to the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Himalayas.

How do you make a motion picture when the lead performer can’t move? In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, director Julian Schnabel and cameraman Janusz Kaminski devise a bravura opening sequence from the perspective of one man’s occasionally blurred perspective. Gradually, over the course of the first twenty minutes, the camera eye moves from being completely subjective to allow the audience to view the hospital and the stroke victim’s situation objectively.

The images of the Taj Mahal and the rest of the great places supposedly ventured to by the intrepid oldsters in The Bucket List are clearly faked by second-unit crews. They also had to make scenes of the duo speed racing and skydiving look plausible to a slightly weary holiday audience. That’s hard to do—and it’s almost endearing to see them make of a mess of it. The travel sequences in particular remind one of the old Hope and Crosby “road” movies.

The story in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is real. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French edition of Elle, did have a stroke and woke up as a victim of “locked in syndrome,” with a fully functional mind and an almost totally non-functional body. The terrifying and poignant account of Bauby’s last days has already inspired a gorgeously shot documentary by Diva director Jean-Jacques Beineix.

The tale in The Bucket List is clearly contrived. If there’s a direct precursor, it’s from the old Walter Matthau—Jack Lemmon comedies, especially Grumpy Old Men, where aging males get to take pot shots at themselves and the world because, after all, they have nothing to lose.

Over the course of The Diving Bell, Bauby gets over his shock and depression to write his memoirs by blinking “yes” to letters of the alphabet read aloud to him by a therapist and, latterly, his publisher’s typist/editor. This heroic and painstakingly slow process is carefully detailed in Schnabel’s film. The book became a best seller in France and achieved success in translations around the world.

The Bucket List has some literary references, though not as distinguished as Bauby’s memoirs. The title comes from a “kick the bucket” set of tasks that the doomed duo must achieve in the last days of their lives. Herb Gardner’s hit play I’m Not Rappoport probably inspired the film, too. In both, an African-American and an old white man spar endlessly about life’s inequities as they live through their final months.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is clearly a director’s film. Schnabel is a highly regarded painter whose occasional forays into feature filmmaking—Basquiat and Before Night Falls—have imaginatively captured the creative process of his subjects, the doomed artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Reynoldo Arenas. Style has precedence in this nearly avant-garde work, which offers multiple viewpoints, flashbacks, dramatic voice-overs, Super-8 footage and an evocative soundtrack to evoke his lead’s struggle to find meaning in life. Not even the brilliant performances of Swedish legend Max von Sydow as Bauby’s ancient father, Quebecoise actor Marie-Josee Croze as the speech therapist, and French star Emmanuelle Seigner as his ex-partner are allowed to overshadow Schnabel’s artistic triumphs.

Rob Reiner, the director of The Bucket List, is clearly in search of a hit. Though his early films included such worldwide successes as When Harry Met Sally, This is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me and A Few Good Men, Reiner hasn’t had a hit in over a decade. Anyone remember with fondness Jennifer Aniston in Rumour Has It or Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson in Alex and Emma? That’s why Reiner is counting on the chemistry of Jack Nicholson as billionaire scoundrel Edward Cole and Morgan Freeman as the philosophical auto mechanic Carter Chambers to work. For him and us, that’s the film.

What will sell either of these films, especially in late December? Despite their differences, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Bucket List do have lots in common. Both are philosophical, mordantly funny and sentimental. Ultimately, they’re upbeat—since the doomed leads get to achieve their final goals. And what can be a better Christmas present than that?

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