Broken Plates, Broken Bodies

“The shattered surfaces make the images waver
and shift in an atmosphere of ruined decadence…”
– Roberta Smith, New York Times’ Art in Review, 1999.

In the 1980’s, Julian Schnabel made his name in the art world by painting portraits of friends, acquaintances and celebrities on broken bits of plates. When he turned his focus to directing films, Schnabel furthered this process. Instead of creating portraits on a broken canvas, he made portraits of broken people. He started with familiar territory in Basquiat, exploring the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat whose self-destructive tendencies burned faster than his talent. In Before Night Falls, he depicts a homosexual Cuban poet and novelist who becomes a political prisoner. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the culmination of Schnabel’s artistic expression.

On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke that put him in a coma and damaged his brain stem. When he awoke three months later, he was in a state called cerebromedullospinal disconnection, or, locked-in syndrome. His entire body was paralyzed, save some neck movement and the ability to blink his left eye. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Schnabel’s adaptation of the book that Bauby wrote – dictated by blinking that one eye.

From the very beginning, Schnabel places us inside this paralyzed existence, plunging  the audience into the head of the diving bell. His camera captures all of the beauty – of the sea, the sky, clouds, light, dresses flowing in the wind. It adds layer upon textural layer. Bauby’s memoir was not a point-by-point  record of his experience, and Diving Bell is not meant to accurately portray that memoir. They both choose what they will focus their eye on to create a version of truth – the best means of expressing their own point of view. When you look at Schnabel’s portraits, you aren’t looking at photographically realistic representation. And when you watch his movies, you get to see the internal landscape that isn’t always readily visible to a casual observer.

During the end credits, an avalanche reverses itself and all of the pieces of the mountain float back up, the natural forces of decay and destruction are reversed until everything is made whole again. JohnWalker asserts that “[r]eality for Schnabel… is not just the external, objective world, it is also the internal subjective dimension of dreams, emotions, memories, myths, fantasies; thus the subject/object barrier is dissolved.” The subjects of Schnabel’s movies become the broken pieces over which he paints their own portrait, transforming them back into whole beings.

For more on the relationship of Julian Schnabel’s art and film, please visit:

See also:

– Julian Schnabel at the Tate: Profiting from new art (1982)


By Brian Warfield

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