Imagine only being able to communicate through blinking. Now imagine trying to dictate your memoirs in this grueling and time-consuming fashion. That’s how Jean-Dominique Bauby had to put his life and thoughts down on paper. The editor of French Elle suffered a stroke so severe that it rendered him almost entirely paralyzed for the remainder of his short life. He died less than 18 months later just days after the publication of his 1997 memoirs. Making amends for his laughable adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera Ronald Hardwood pays homage to Bauby’s remarkable achievement with an eloquent screenplay that examines the power of the mind over the body. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins on the day when Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up from a coma and is alarmed to find himself in a hospital completely paralyzed and unable to speak. But his mind is sharp as it ever was. Flashbacks reveal Bauby to be a man who lived life to the fullest and relished every challenge that came his way. So being stuck in a body that no longer functions as it once did is clearly pure hell for Bauby--until his therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) teaches Bauby to communicate by blinking his left eye. Bauby suddenly decides to honor a book contract he had signed before his stroke--and in the process he discovers his raison d’être. Like My Left Foot’s Daniel Day-Lewis before him Amalric indelibly proves that the mind can and will thrive even when the body is broken and beyond repair. Amalric though has less to work with than the wild-eyed Day-Lewis who had the luxury of drawing you into his performance by tapping into Irish author Christy Brown’s abrasive personality and larger-than-life presence. It’s mesmerizing to watch the intrepid Amalric at work even though he’s practically motionless for the entire film bar for a few flashbacks. While the rest of his face remains frozen solid Amalric eloquently expresses Bauby’s innermost hopes and fears through the mere blink of his left eye. There’s never a time when you don’t know how Bauby feels. And his narration is laced with gallows humor which helps keep Diving Bell free from drowning in sentimentality. As Bauby’s therapist Croze personifies patience dedication and resourcefulness we all expect and demand from health-care professionals but don’t always receive. Emmanuelle Seigner maintains a brave face as Bauby’s neglected wife Céline. You wait for Céline to crumble especially as Bauby never stops asking about his mistress but Seigner reveals Céline to be caring and forgiving. The most heartbreaking moments come between Amalric and Max von Sydow who plays Bauby’s father who is much trapped inside his apartment as Bauby is inside his body. There’s great sadness and regret to be found in von Sydow’s every word as he comes to the painful realization that he will outlive his rich and successful son which no father wants to do. Yes Diving Bell is the latest in a long line of inspirational fact-based films about physically and/or mentally challenged people mastering their disabilities. But director Julian Schnabel distinguishes himself and the film by shooting the first act solely from Babuy’s perspective. We see everything Bauby sees through his one good eye from the moment he comes out of his coma. What follows is confusing disorienting and taxing. And darkly humorous as evidenced by Bauby’s admiration of his females nurses. Schnabel’s approach though works to dramatic effect because we receive a greater understanding and appreciation of what Bauby’s experiencing. Stay the course and you will be rewarded for your patience. Once Bauby comes to terms with his fate and refuses to spend the rest of his days wallowing in self pity Schnabel finally turns his camera on Bauby to reveal his post-stroke physical appearance. It’s a quiet but ingenious way for us to accept Bauby as he accepts himself. Schnabel then concentrates on Bauby’s Herculean effort to dictate his autobiography which is occasionally interrupted by poignant flights of fantasy (it’s not hard to guess what the diving bell and the butterfly symbolize). Equal amounts of joy and regret are be found in Bauby’s reminiscing but Schnabel never tries to romanticize his subject or ignore to his past transgressions. Diving Bell doesn’t set to turn a flawed man into a hero but Bauby’s will and determination ultimately reinforces the notion that anything’s possible if you set your mind to it.
Proving that sometimes PR mavens really do earn their fees, new producer on the block Elie (pronounced Eelee) Samaha, who moved in the mid-90s from careers in club-bouncing, dry-cleaning, and club-owning to film-making, has been getting loads and loads of ink recently.
Yes, the Elie avalanche has been a good job by flacks, but the media has also been responding to his good luck at having produced the surprise Bruce Willis/Matthew Perry hit "The Whole Nine Yards" and finally getting that cumbersome John Travolta vehicle, "Battlefield Earth," off the launching pad.
Within the past two weeks, Elie stories have run in publications like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Suggesting that Elie doesn't have a heck of a lot to say, some of the same quotes were duplicated in both stories. And, appropriately, both laid out the producer's modus operandi: find properties that are star pet projects that can't get made but have kicked around the studios forever, get the star involved cheaply, sucker financiers from overseas with the lure of the star attachments, take the production to Canada, and roll cameras.
While readers have gotten an industrial-strength dose of Elie pictures and text, fans who want to fill out the portrait more fully should be alerted to the fact that Elie's bullying and sometimes downright crude voice pops up a number of times in Myles Berkowitz's funny 1997 documentary "20 Dates," which Fox Searchlight released to moderate success and is now available at video stores.
Elie produced and financed the film debut, which tracks the L.A.-based Berkowitz's dogged efforts to find a significant other. Demanding more sizzle and saleable elements from his filmmaker, Elie is heard on screen in numerous phone conversations badgering Berkowitz to deliver more sex, nudity, whatever. Elie also forces Berkowitz to use his former then-partner Tia Carrere in a bit role. Elie's indelicate voice and crude speaking manner mesh perfectly with his many recent profiles.
In fact, Samaha should probably do a Bob Evans and commit his producing manifesto and life story to audiotape so that young Hollywood execs and wannabes can hear - in his own highly-expressive voice and words - the latest Biz gospel while speeding to meetings and business meals. Robert Evans, of course, was a big hit with the car-driving male Hollywood set with his "The Kid Stays in the Picture" on audiocassette.
And with the "Battlefield Earth" grosses due to crash to earth in less than two weeks, Samaha may welcome a detour into this the world of audio and the surefire revenues tapes can deliver. Evans hasn't had a bigger hit since.
THAT LITTLE FRENCH THING: The next few weeks will be bringing filmgoers such much-anticipated big pix as "Small Time Crooks," Woody Allen's first film for DreamWorks; Disney's "Dinosaurs," expected to deliver jaw-dropping visuals and grosses to match; DreamWorks' gross-out "Road Trip," which makes "American Pie" seem as tame as, well, American pie; and "Mission: Impossible 2," Tom Cruise's summer juggernaut that could have a certain "Gladiator" grinding his teeth in fear.
But amidst this formidable all-star lineup, Phaedra Cinema is expected to venture where few other distribs dare to venture by releasing "Portraits Chinois" on May 19.
This little French thing, written and directed by Martine Dugowson, will get clobbered by the Big Boys but doesn't deserve such harsh treatment. Were this twenty years ago, the film - which follows the loves, lives, disappointments, and triumphs of a group of Parisian yuppies in the worlds of film and fashion - would have stood a chance.
The film boasts terrific performances from Helena Bohnam Carter, Romane Bohringer, Marie Trintignant, Yvan Attal, Elsa Zylberstein, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey. There's even a surprise turn from vet French actor Jean-Claude Brialy, who plays a top Parisian fashion designer and is familiar to cinephiles who adore early Claude Chabrol.
This little French film will disappear fast, like so many other deserving little French films that manage to get washed up on our ungrateful shores. At least "Portraits Chinois" got to make the journey. If only filmgoers, bombarded these days by "dinosaurs" and "missions" and "crooks" and the like, could meet it halfway.
The week of Dec. 14 proves to be yet another with less than usual fanfare as the holiday season continues its approach. The wave of Disney animated offerings takes a week off while the majors decide which sprinklings of recent films will make the grade with the usual catalog backdating.
Leading the relatively small list of major recent offerings is Paramount's special edition of Simon West's ("Con Air") "The General's Daughter" ($29.99 SRP). Featuring a running audio commentary by director West, as well as deleted scenes, trailers and a making-of featurette, the film about an army investigator's (John Travolta) search for the persons responsible for the rape and murder of a prominent base commander should be another big step in the right direction for Paramount DVD. With so many great films in its vast archive, many of its releases would do well to receive such treatment.
New Line hopes to knock out audiences when it issues the Michael Patrick Jann-directed "Drop Dead Gorgeous" ($24.98 SRP). Essentially the story of a small-town beauty pageant that turns mean and vicious, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" features a hot, young cast, including Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards. New Line's DVD includes a script-to-screen screenplay as a DVD-ROM feature, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
If the concept of Dunst and Richards willing to do anything to be beautiful isn't your thing, one can always pick up her other DVD release of the week, "Dick" ($24.95 SRP). Teamed with Michelle Williams ("Dawson's Creek"), Dunst plays one half of a clueless pair who wind up as official White House dog walkers after a routine field trip to Washington, D.C., during the Nixon administration finds them witness to dirty deeds that the federal government would like to cover up as quickly as possible. Columbia/TriStar's special edition of "Dick" features a running commentary by director Andrew Fleming and screenwriter Sheryl Longin, as well as a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and an isolated music score.
Though few films are really indie anymore (considering the majors own the vast majority of the formerly indie studios), a host of quasi-indie features hits shelves this week.
Leading the way is director Francois Girard's highly praised picture "The Red Violin" ($29.98 SRP). Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Greta Scacchi (among others), the film follows the magical path of the world's most perfect violin --an instrument that brings with it obsession and passion as it travels around the world over miles and ages. As it should be, the music-critical feature offers the obligatory isolated soundtrack, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
Director Alain Berliner's 1997 feature "Ma Vie En Rose ("My Life in Pink")" ($27.95 SRP) hits stores this week. The Golden Globe-winning story of a young boy who believes he is a girl trapped in a boy's body stars Michele Laroque, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Helene Vincent and Georges Du Fresne. The film garnered a number of award nominations and positive reviews culminating in its Best Foreign Language Film nod at the 1998 Golden Globes.
Not to be confused with the John Frankenheimer film of the same name, Mario Bava's 1960 horror epic "Black Sunday" ($24.99) hits shelves in an uncut European edition. The story follows the unfortunate decision of two doctors to dig up the crypt of a 17th century witch, resulting in her resurrection and a host of horrific deeds. Image Entertainment's special edition includes a running audio commentary by Bava scholar Tim Lucas, as well as the original theatrical trailer, a photo and a poster gallery.
If suspense is the item of the day, director Philip Noyce's extraordinarily visceral "Dead Calm" ($19.98 SRP) will more than hit the spot. Starring Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane and Sam Neill, the film follows two grieving parents (Kidman and Neill) who hit the open seas in an attempt to get over the loss of their dead child. Instead, they come across a mysterious shipwreck and its sole survivor (Zane). Over the course of its 96 minutes, "Dead Calm" will do a wonderful job of creating unbearable tension and features some of Zane's best work to date.