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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly / The Bucket List

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Marie-Josee Croze delivers the letters in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
  • Marie-Josee Croze delivers the letters in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Becoming gravely ill or incapacitated; dying with life left unfulfilled. We fear such scenarios, and one way we exorcise the dread is to vicariously celebrate somebody else's triumph over these inevitabilities, albeit through entertainment. Hence, the never-ending stream of soft-news programs, TV dramatizations and uplifting bio-pics designed to turn life's worst moments into inspirational lessons and feel-good affirmations of the Triumph of the Human Spirit. And while it's easy to dismiss such formulaic films, the end-of-life melodrama, like the romantic comedy and the underdog-team rally, clearly serves a ready audience.

Opening this week are two films that navigate this same territory, yet their chosen paths couldn't be more different. The arthouse feature The Diving Bell and the Butterfly revels in the interior, dares to frustrate and eschews easy sentimentality, yet is remarkably affecting. The other film, The Bucket List, is a by-the-book Hollywood carpe diem piece of junk food that despite its A-list stars and gloss is the epitome of predictable and unsatisfying.

The Diving Bell already has a notable provenance as a book. The slim volume was heralded upon its release, in 1997, in part because of its remarkable creation. A former Paris bon vivant and editor of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, "dictated" the work by blinking his left eye, his only moving body part after a severe stroke. Artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat), working from Ronald Harwood's adaptation, breathes vividness into Bauby's account of his days spent "locked-in": a fully functional mind trapped in an inert shell.

The vaguely nightmarish opening puts us inside Bauby's head: Out-of-focus doctors peer down, as the camera-eye blinks shut; snippets of matter-of-fact diagnosis drift in. Another voice queries repeatedly -- "What's going on?" "Where am I?" -- but to no acknowledgement. That voice, it seems, is only inside this shared head.

Schnabel keeps us to this restricted point-of-view for some time. We don't see much (and even less when one eye is sewn shut, in an unnecessary bit of gimmickry), but we grow intimate with Bauby, whose interior monologue charts his growing awareness and horror. Thus, we "know" Bauby's inside well before we see his outside, a clever choice by Schnabel that neutralizes the shock of confronting his twisted, inert form. And any pity is countered with Bauby's own mordant observation of the scene: "I look like I came out of a vat of formaldehyde."

Flashbacks provide snapshots of Bauby's earlier life -- managing a Paris fashion shoot; visiting his dad; a sulky trip with his mistress; a near-miss with an airline hijacking -- but even these prove portentous. The high times are as temporal as high fashion; his father (Max von Sydow) is a wobbly shut-in whom Bauby must shave; the dirty weekend is to Lourdes, where the hopeless and righteous might be cured, but never a disdainful libertine like Bauby; and if one bad flight was nimbly avoided, Fate was waiting right around the corner.

The Diving Bell is not without sentiment or maudlin moments, but these are tempered by a certain Gallic standoffishness. Bauby, as befits his former situation and the filmmaker's indulgence, is surrounded by beautiful women, female angels in the corporeal form of nurses, therapists and ex-lovers. Conversely, the men at his bedside -- doctors, colleagues, and by telephone, his father -- are brusque and buttoned-up, unable to breach the awkwardness to communicate.

Mathieu Amalric portrays Bauby, and his performance is a fascinating exercise in physical restriction. His voiceover conveys much, and the man we come to know is no sun-dappled hero. Bauby is sarcastic, peevish, angry and often simply annoyed or exasperated. You sense that he takes on the blinking-my-story project primarily out of unfulfilled ego fueled by boredom. Watching these tedious dictations scenes – where his aides, including the sublime Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), repeatedly intone: "e ... s ... a ... r ..." – probably made the quick-witted Bauby want to scream as much as I did.

Bauby died soon after the book's publication. One is left to wonder what Bauby, who with his one eye and intact hearing could process a film as well as any of us, would have made of Schnabel's inside-out trick: the cinematic visualization of Bauby's inner life using only a series of letters as a guide. In French, with subtitles. Manor

 

Bucket buddies: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson
  • Bucket buddies: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson

Meanwhile, over in La-La Land, we've got a picture-perfect pair of old guys confronting the collapse of their bodies in Rob Reiner's The Bucket List. Carter (Morgan Freeman) is a retired mechanic, whose blue-collar obligations kept him from pursuing opportunities his well-honed brain might have led him to, while Ed (Jack Nicholson) is a braying, self-absorbed zillionaire with lots of toadies and no friends.

They meet cute, sharing a hospital room where each is receiving last-ditch care for fatal cancers. Carter has smarts and places to see; Ed's got cash and no buddies to spend it on -- and before long, they've gone AWOL from the hospital and are working their way together through a list of things to do before they kick the bucket.

This comedy, peppered with inspirational bromides, trades on an odd fantasy: What if, with only months to live, you could do whatever you wanted, and by the way, money is no object? Hollywood sure loves a "problem solved by checkbook!" approach to life's tricky parts.

After a lengthy set-up that establishes the two new BFFs to be as comically prickly as a pair of old marrieds, the two embark on their big embrace of life. You won't be surprised to learn how pedestrian some of the desires are: get a tattoo, sky-dive, drive a race car. They also hit a few Wonders of the World, in all their CGI splendor: Taj Mahal, Mount Everest, the pyramids. As the cash flows and the frequent-flier miles add up, important lessons are learned about family, friendship and making each moment count.

And forget about their illness -- these guys bounce along like spring-breakers, and each man's personal growth is rooted in the mix-and-match nature of their unlikely friendship, rather than in confronting the Grim Reaper. Neither actor breaks much of a sweat: Jack cracks wise, leers and steams; Freeman is sage, wry and twinkly.

In The Diving Bell, Bauby digs within himself to fight the betrayal of his body; he literally has nothing else to work with. ("My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly," he says.) Skipping any real introspection in favor of schmaltz, The Bucket List lazily suggests that the glorious human spirit can be released by maximizing the external -- particularly extravagant experiences achievable only by the super-rich. Oh, buzzing the Rivera in a private jet sounds fun, but as a salve to our anxieties, this List is as hollow as a bucket.

 

Both films start Fri., Jan. 11.

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