TIFF Tuesday –– Day 6

Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to have film writer Cathleen Rountree blogging to us daily from the Toronto Film Festival, telling us the buzz on the marathon of movies and parade of movie stars in Toronto. She’ll file her dispatches daily between movie screenings.

A productive day of film-viewing: Three excellent films and one real loser:

“Blind” (Dir. Tamar van den Dop, The Netherlands)

“King of California” (Dir. Mike Cahill, USA) (the loser!)

“Mad Detective” (Dirs. Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, Hong Kong)

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Dir. Julian Schnabel, France)
A bold and confrontational painter, Julian Schnabel’s raw energy and daring transfer equally well from canvas to screen. Before his first film, “Basquiat,” in 1996 (based on the life of New York graffiti and collage artist Jean-Michel), Schnabel’s work had grown to gargantuan proportions. Cinema seemed the only logical next step. Each of his three films, including “Before Night Falls,” adapted from the autobiographical novel by Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet, novelist, and playwright, and now, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” deal with highly creative individuals, each of whom has some tragic affliction (Basquiat was drug-addicted and Arenas died from AIDS).

“The Diving Bell” tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a once successful editor of French “Elle.” Bauby’s memoir “Le scaphandre et le papillon” was published in France in 1996 and a year later in English. I read this compellingly poetic book ten years ago and I’m relieved and pleased to say that Schnabel’s filmed version is as masterful as the original literary one.

At the age of 42, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, which left him in a physically vegetative state (a condition called locked-in syndrome), although his mind and his wit remained very much in tact, Bauby’s only means of communication was his left eyelid: one blink for yes, two for no. Through a strenuous and time-consuming process, and with the aid of his devoted nurses, Bauby physically conveyed or “dictated” his memoirs. A mere three weeks after the publication of his book, Bauby succumbed to pneumonia.

The story is practically beyond conceiving, let alone believing. Yet, Schnabel’s imaginative and sensitive approach to the material results in a masterful cinematic experience. As the viewer, we actually see through Bauby’s one good eye or, as Schnabel refers to it, “the pure ‘I.’”

Dreams, reflections, and hallucinations emerge through a painter’s –– and cinematographer’s (Janusz Kaminski) –– sensibility and responsiveness to pain and how it eventually leads to beauty, authenticity, and ultimate appreciation, in spite of past lapses and present indignities. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” won for Schnabel the much-deserved Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. And French actor Mathieu Amalric captures every subtlety and range of emotion through his remarkable expressive left eye. The word is that Johnny Depp had signed on for the part. But it’s difficult to imagine a pirate (an American, at that) in this role.

The film, opening in December, promises an inspiring Christmas gift to all.

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