The Painter Directs: Julian Schnabel And The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

By Kimberly Brooks
December 29, 2007

I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other night. I couldn’t wait to sink my eyes into what I knew would be a visual extravaganza by painter Julian Schnabel. Film is a great medium. It’s such a new art form, still licking the placenta off its ears, compared to others. But I’m a tough audience — after most movies I just want my money back. But to have someone already established in the Grande Dame of painting, and Julian Schnabel no less, I just knew I was going to be in for a ride.

Installation of Paintings by Julian Schnabel

And I was. It was touching, frightening, gorgeous and exhilarating. He creates a billowing parachute of visuals and delicately holds it down with the pins of narrative and physical transformation. The movie is about Jean-Dominique Bauby, AKA “Jean-Do,” a high-flying editor of French Elle, who– in a freak health catastrophe– finds himself paralyzed but for his brain and a single blinking eye which he uses to communicate. The entire story is told from the eye and brain, what it sees, what it says (spelling letters by blinking) and what it imagines.


“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Movie Still

As a painter, I recognized his aesthetic finger prints all over the celluloid. The way his beautiful nurses, Henriette and Marie (Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz Lopez Garamendia, respectively), repeatedly said the letters of the alphabet for the “locked in” Jean-Do to spell by blinking. Another director might have shown it once as an expository device, but Schnabel weaves it throughout and becomes a mesmerizing leitmotif both visually and auditorially. In between relearning how to communicate are surreal visual escapades where Jean-Do leaps out of his body and the former bon vivant‘s past appears even less prominently than the imaginary world he has been forced to create for himself.
Artists especially owe it to themselves to see the movie. And people who see the movie should familiarize themselves with his work as a painter if they are not already.


“Amor Misericor” Oil on Linen Julian Schnabel

This is Julian’s third film after Basquiat and Before Night Falls. At which point did he cross from being a painter who made films or a filmmaker who paints or was he always both? I believe the film world is finally giving him is due recognition as a director. My painter friends and I whisper that it’s about time.


“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Movie Still

It’s a difficult dance, being taken seriously as an artist in more than one medium if the medium’s are not exactly related to each other (e.g: writer/director). When I was a kid, my father, a surgeon, used to tell me that if you met someone at a party and they couldn’t answer what they did for a living in one sentence, then they were probably full of it. Since he told me that he’s become a best-selling author on topics totally unrelated to surgery. I guess what he meant was that if you have to use more than one sentence, you better be damn good at both.


“Allen – Cordial Love” Julian Schnabel

  • Artists Interviewing Other Artists Since 2008. Founded by Kimberly Brooks.

First Person Artist

Artists Interviewing and Looking at other Artists
since 2008.
Founded by Kimberly Brooks