19 January 2008

Review: Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Genre: Drama / Biopic

So I finally just saw Le Scaphandre et le Papillon today and, for the first time in a while, I discovered that the work had not been, to a disappointment's effect, extenuously overpraised in the media. Instead, I discovered that it was as many have already been saying, a wonderful and deeply beautiful description of one man's struggle to uncover and improve and express himself in the world; and, although that bit of plot detail may come off as more than a bit cliche and 'senti-metallic,' I assure anyone who may doubt me about it that, a former cynic myself, my similar doubts were quelled (and thoroughly quelled at that). From Mr. Kaminski's brilliant cinematography, that simply overwhelmed with its power, to Mr. Harwood's faithful adaptation, that glowed and radiated in its unembellished honesty, the film is clearly one of the best of the year.
To begin with, the film in its very first moment immediately breaks the divide of spectator from spectacle. Much of the entire film was shot in the first person, in a way that places the spectator within the visual confines of the struggling protagonist, and thus allies the two parties in that way. An extremely incisive and potent perspective, that alliance allowed the film to achieve true and unglamorized - ahem, Atonement - audience immersion, a phenomenon that roots strongly into the very foundational aims for the medium film - no, even (narrative) art in general - itself (i. e., the possibilities for consciousness' extension, metaphysical escapism, the persistence of memory, etc.).
These philosophical ripples were then supported by and symbiotically raised with an equally probing screenplay, that consciously investigated the limits of what it is to be 'human;' to have form, body; to think; to be thought of; and to create. Mr. Harwood delicately etched all this out from the original text marvellously, without any sensible or significant loss of strength; and additionally he found it within his capabilities and talent to cohabit these weighty discourses with the light and yet still emotionally and psychologically relevant portraits of the common tugs-of-war of the everyday and the people. In one rushing swift he touched on the quickly passionate anguish many feel when almost viscerally immersed in a televised sports' event and then cascaded smoothly into a solipsistic exploration of the larger-scheme, vital exasperation that can be extended from that rather quotidian origin. (When one is forced in on oneself, to rawly confront and really scrutinize oneself, in absence of all other things, all other beings, can what is commonly understood by the word "passion" truly be felt or achieved, or is that phenomenon solely and entirely an artificial, associative reaction to otherworldly things, a condition inspirable only by those things and those people absented outside of oneself?) And, for such tremendous tackle and ambition, he never once failed or faltered, but instead delivered and drove consistently rhythmically to as much of a conclusion as anyone can be said to have reached.
Intelligently, this philosophical questioning and journey was exactly and subtly mimicked by the quiet, evolving structure of Mr. Kaminski's cinematography. Much like the papillon's emergence from its scaphandre, the visuals of the film gradually reached beyond their starting point, to achieve a new frame, that of an abstracted self, an outsider, gazing within, gazing at the vessel from which it emerged. The transference from the initial first-person's perspective to a slowly more preponderate third-person's perspective illustrates this point most clearly; but Mr. Kaminksi marked all the story's archs in this way, extracting the proximal and the intense into the expansive and the resonant, and wove the film even tighter still by interlacing iconically significant, touchstone-like images at regular intervals throughout the film (e. g., the aquatic descent and the rigid, [old-world] full-body diving suit). Needless to say, the effects of all these aspects and designs were quite exquisite.
Together, the screenplay and the cinematography led the film's connoiter with concerns of the body, the mind, and the inexiguous delineation of the self as well as with the finesses and furies of human interrelations, especially intimate ones, but it was Mr. Schnabel's skilled direction that really gave all of it its flair. Drawing out spot-on performances from his cast, whom he superbly arranged in his spaces, and timing well the weight of each piece of his work, he quite elegantly oversaw his story from its at-first-instant beginnings to its majestic ends. He allowed the tragic to be tragic, the intimate to be intimate, and the funny to be funny and never let any one of them run away with the other two; and he made sure to extirpate any even meager sign of mill humor or pity or repulsion from his lush and sculpted filmscape.
Yet, for all its polished and clean and well conceived depths and surfaces, the film was not absolutely impeccable and, I feel, no matter what the condition or the origin of a work, unless perfect it can always be offered a little constructive criticism. In this case, I have three such comments. First: While I understand that, being based on a true and recent story, the film had little choice but to be allegiant to its source material, it also on the other hand could have taken some small, non-radical liberties without disavowing its source, in order to really crisp up and realize its source's at-least subtextual emotions. For example, I felt that in the first act, in which the protagonist learns of his "locked-in" condition, he could have more clearly been seen to go through the several stages of grief over personal loss that are to be expected in a situation like his. While confusion, displacement, despair, and acceptance are all there, the anger or frustration component I thought was lacking. If it had been more present, the audience's introduction into the body of the plot could have been more smooth and complete (though, without it, there is but a minor crease in the film's fabric [that may be arguably excused by references to the protagonist's character or personal nature]). Second and related to the first: While the borrowed music of the film was certainly strong and felt and very present, I thought the work as a whole could have used a more present, more solid original score. Mr. Constantin's and Mr. Cantelon's themes were a little too shy, too placid, too sedate for the film's fierce heart in my opinion. Third: While I understand the symbolic significance of the glacial imagery that figures throughout and at the closing of the film, I did not feel like it was a thoroughly sound analogy to make. Glaciers suggest coldness, frozenness, and 'in-fecundity' or 'in-arability' in addition to vastness, desolation, cohesion, etc.; and so they put me in mind of unsustainability, inaccess, and fruitlessness, which obviously stand in direct contrast to the tenets of the film. Perhaps fish in fractile, glass fishbowls would have been a better piece of imagery.
Nonetheless, despite these small constructive critiques, I did definitively admire the film and all the people involved in its creation. I strongly encourage anyone who have not yet seen it to soon do so, for in all its facets it was a tight, pointed, and affecting piece of work, with cinematography, a screenplay, and direction that stand out as some of the best of the year. And, them adeptly probing very profound, very current areas of philosophy, it sincerely was a tremendous work.

Grade: A-

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