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Liberating patience: Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette.

Open Your Eyes

By Laura Leon

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Directed by Julian Schnabel

Years ago, while toiling away on the Stairmaster at my gym, I read an article in Elle Magazine about a new book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which had been written by that magazine’s former editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby. The thing that haunted me, that broke through my grim determination to work off last night’s martinis, was the fact that the once vibrant Bauby had suffered a calamitous stroke which rendered him incapable of speech or any movement save blinking with one eye. The mere fact that he could, in this condition, write a book (with the help of a devoted transcriber)—that he could communicate his thoughts and fantasies—by using a painstaking approach whereby the transcriber recited the alphabet and Bauby blinked at the appropriate letter, floored me. I can’t say how many times this feat has occupied my mind, making me wonder at an individual’s drive to be heard, to be understood, to be considered human.

Nevertheless, I was a little loathe to view the movie adaptation, figuring that that which is eloquent and haunting on the page cannot make the leap to big screen, especially considering the fact that the protagonist suffers from “locked-in syndrome,” alive and conscious yet unable to communicate. However, director Julian Schnabel, who has made sort of a second career filming stories of artists struggling to have their voices heard, imbues the proceedings with both an understanding of the artistic process (and temperament) and the imagination to make it work as an individual statement. From the moment the movie begins, we see and hear patchy glimpses of things through the point of view of Bauby (Mathieu Amalric). He’s been in a coma for several weeks, and when he comes to, it’s apparent, through the comments and questions he “asks,” that his mind is intact. The utter horror of the situation, played much more realistically than say the over-the-top histrionics of Awake, cuts to the quick. Before long, Bauby is being cared for by therapists Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz López Garmendia), whose innocent beauty teases the once virile patient. One of the remarkable things about The Diving Bell is its ability to let us recognize the sexual and flirtatious aspect of Bauby; his one good eye takes in glimpses of leg or chest, and the effect isn’t creepy or lewd, but wistful.

As Bauby determines to keep alive that part of him which still works—namely, his imagination and his brain—he struggles with unresolved issues with lovers and family. In particular, his longtime mistress and mother to his three children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), remains steadfast and loving. Indeed, Bauby’s father Papinou (Max Von Sydow), in a moving flashback, chides his son for having left Celine to marry Ines, a beauty who cannot bring herself to view Jean-Dominique in his present condition. Indeed, the fact of Bauby’s undeniable charisma, his ability to juggle different women with relative ease and, to a large extent, their understanding, gives us another glimpse into his true personality, that which exists besides the near vegetative state.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s visuals caress the images that Bauby sees or imagines, so that we can almost feel the exquisite ruching on the Empress Eugenie’s silk gown, or sense the warmth of sun on bare, languid skin. Combined with Schnabel’s adroit handling of the text, and Ronald Harwood’s intuitive script, the overall effect is haunting, heartbreaking, and yet ultimately uplifting. The measure of a man, in the case of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is not so much how he died, but how he lived.

Kill ’Em All

Rambo

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

If you were a teenage boy growing up in the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone was just about the coolest dude alive, and his John Rambo was the guns-blazing, muscles-rippling epitome of awesome, totally awesome. Never mind that the character, as it were, was a disenfranchised Vietnam vet with a mean case of post-traumatic stress disorder—backstory isn’t important; just get to the part where he kills a lot of people.

Stallone seems to have directed Rambo, the fourth installment of the First Blood franchise, from this point of view. There’s no misdirection here; Rambo is quickly established as the center of attention (his name is on the marquee after all), first seen in a series of long, fawning shots—bow-fishing (he starts killing before the opening credits stop rolling), handling snakes and working the land, the ever-present headband circling his ever-present mullet. Also quickly established is the violence in which this film revels. A brutal opening sequence shows the Burmese army torturing and murdering a group of captives, including women and children; a person is exploded within the first 90 seconds of the film. Just so we know who the bad guys are.

Soon, a missionary group turns up looking for a boat ride into Burma, so they can deliver supplies and medical help to villagers. Naturally, Rambo declines—“Burmush a wurrzone,” he grunts—until the cute blonde girl (Julie Benz) appeals to him with some terrible hippy-dippy rhetoric (“Trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life!”).

Cut to Rambo piloting the boat upriver.

Of course everything goes to hell, and soon Rambo is on his way back to rescue the good-natured dolts, along with a team of mercenaries, including one really belligerent Australian guy (Graham McTavish) who asks, in his first scene, “What the fuck am I doing here?” (A: Someone’s gotta find the landmine.)

The 2008 version of Rambo is a caricature of a character that had devolved into caricature by the time the last film was made 20 years ago. Stallone looks like he had bovine growth hormone injected into his face, his frame a bulky and tough version of the comparatively svelte Rambo of the ’80s—just as pissed off, but a little slower. He makes up for this by directing much of the film with the same distracting handheld style popularized in films like 28 Days Later. With the scores of CGI body parts flying about, the battle scenes end up resembling a video game. Even setting shots are rushed together, quickly dissolved into one another as if it were an infomercial for Travel Burma.

Surely the most violent film in recent memory—it’s practically Hostel 3: Burma—must have a message to justify its imagery? Maybe, but it’s buried under mindless rhetoric and gallons of blood. A soul-searching flashback montage, presumably intended to develop the character (incorporating brief snippets of the first three films for no discernable purpose), does little to differentiate Rambo from Freddy Krueger. Maybe killing’s as easy as breathing, but filmmaking sure isn’t.

—John Brodeur


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