Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dear France, Thanks for Being You. With Gratitude and Affection, the Rest of Us.

athieu Amalric, here with Anne Consigny, as Jean-Dominique Bauby in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
Article Tools Sponsored By
Published: May 24, 2007

CANNES, France, May 23 — It may not seem surprising that the leading French film festival should feature a number of movies that show France in a flattering light, but the cinematic love letters to the country popping up on Cannes screens this year are not self-addressed billets-doux, even though high self-regard is a longstanding Gallic tradition. Given that a theme of the recent French presidential election was a perceived national identity crisis, it is possible to imagine the present cluster of pro-French movies by non-French directors as a kind of friendly reassurance. Hey, these filmmakers seem to be saying, don’t be so down on yourselves. We love you.

And so Hou Hsiao-hsien, from Taiwan, paid tribute in “The Flight of the Red Balloon” both to a classic French children’s movie and to the everyday loveliness of Paris. And Michael Moore, as if saying merci for his Palme d’Or three years ago, turned a paean to the French welfare state into the comic centerpiece of “Sicko,” his indictment of the American health care system. So benevolent is the French government, in Mr. Moore’s knowingly wide-eyed account, that it not only treats its citizens’ maladies, but also does their laundry. (Not all the time, of course. Only when there’s a new baby in the house. But still.)

And if a Frenchman should undergo a paralyzing stroke, the government apparently will provide two beautiful women to sit at his bedside, one to help him communicate and the other, a physical therapist, to help him regain use of his mouth by blowing kisses and extending her tongue. (These women are supplementary to the mother of the man’s children, his mistress and the lovely amanuensis dispatched by his editor to help him write a book.)

Granted, state largess is not really the theme of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Julian Schnabel’s moving and gorgeously shot adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was editor in chief of Elle magazine in France before suffering a stroke at 42. What Mr. Bauby had to endure — full consciousness and complete immobility, apart from the ability to open and close one eye — is horrifying under any circumstances.

But the setting of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is not incidental to its spirit, which is exuberant as well as poignant, and remarkably unsentimental given the subject. Even in his frozen state Mr. Bauby (played by the kinetic French actor Mathieu Amalric) remains a sensualist, an ironist and a bon vivant: very much a Frenchman, you might say. And the matter-of-fact benevolence with which he is treated by most of the people around him also seems, in Mr. Schnabel’s rendering, to be a reflection of national character as much as individual temperament.