Julian Schnabel in Pleasantville

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Julian Schnabel hit the suburbs tonight, taking the stage at the Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, along with erstwhile New York Times film critic Janet Maslin after a screening of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for a pleasantly rambling Q&A. Among the topics covered was the real genesis of the project, which apparently has its roots in Schnabel’s thwarted attempt to film Perfume. Schnabel described the connection in some detail, but it boils down in part to the similarities he saw between Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s ability to smell his way across continents and the paralyzed Jean-Dominique Bauby’s gift for traveling in his own imagination. (As an aside, both Schnabel and Maslin took the opportunity to trash the eventual adaptation of Perfume last year, by Tom Tykwer — which I didn’ t think was so bad, especially for a notoriously unfilmable novel, but whatever.)


Other tidbits? Schnabel says he wouldn’t have gotten this gig if it

weren’t for Johnny Depp, who originally agreed to star as Bauby but

only if Schnabel was attached. “He got caught up with the pirate

stuff,” Schnabel explained with a shrug. And somehow, the movie then

became more French, even though the producers originally felt that an

American film would have more commercial potential. And that was

another topic of discussion, as Maslin wondered aloud whether The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is eligible for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Turns out it’s not, because the French decided to submit the animated film Persepolis for

that potential honor — and, as far as foreign countries and the Academy

are concerned, there can be only one. And as far as awards go, Schnabel

is convinced Diving Bell had been selected as the grand prize

winner at Cannes — his actresses were called back to the venue for the

awards ceremony — until some kind of eleventh-hour shenanigans on the

jury bumped him down to Best Director. Some killjoy wanted to know why

Schnabel only cast beautiful women to

play Bauby’s nurses, and Schnabel engaged the question artfully: “I saw

this movie like 8 1/2, a bit,” he said, noting the film’s blurred lines

between Bauby’s ruined body and the escapist fantasies he began to

sketch inside his still-functioning head.

As for the movie itself? It didn’t really move me — which is a shame,

because I was prepared to cry my eyes out after the bravura opening

scenes, which constitute some of the most harrowing first-person

cinematography I’ve ever seen committed to film. (I was ready to hand

much of the credit to his world-class cinematographer on this, Janusz

Kaminski, but Schnabel made a point of noting how his background as a

painter influenced the film’s look, so I have to assume there was a

vigorous and fruitful collaboration on the visuals.) The film forges an

interesting connection between the images on screen and the audience,

as essentially motionless and helpless in its theater seats as the

immobilized Bauby is in his hospital bed — I was reminded for some

reason of the terrifying POV sequence photographed from inside a coffin

in Dreyer’s great horror film Vampyr. I felt the film lost its

way after that extended high point, partly because Mathieu Amalric

didn’t get a script with quite enough character to sink his teeth into,

partly because Schnabel’s approach is more indulgent of his own

painterly sensibilities and less gritty than it needed to be. It’s not

a waste of time, exactly, but a missed opportunity.

2 Replies to “Julian Schnabel in Pleasantville”

  1. Schnabel sounds like a douchebag — like he enjoys touting his status as a victim of Hollywood. (I wanted to make PERFUME. I wanted to cast Johnny Depp. I’m not eligible for the Oscar. WHINE.) His film hasn’t opened in my neck of the woods yet, but PERFUME was pretty awesome so far as I’m concerned, so I’d say you’ve given me a certain bias against TDBATB.

    But, hey, maybe I’m reading it wrong. :)

  2. Well, there was certainly an ego in the room last night. But I don’t begrudge him his self-satisfaction — near-unanimous praise from critics and paying audiences, best director prize, etc etc etc. Despite a propensity toward name-dropping (I left out the most gossipy bits of the Perfume story and the references to people he knew inside Warhol’s Factory etc etc) he came across as quite friendly and approachable — not nearly the Serious Artiste type I expected to see take the stage.

    But does he relish his status as the Hollywood underdog who Showed Them All with this little French movie? Yeah, judging from what he had to say last night I think he does. Fine with me.

    And I was a little disappointed by how the movie turned out, but these things are relative. The night before, for instance, I sat through Revolver, the new, um, Freudian crime drama directed by Guy Ritchie. Hoo boy.

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