By Katie Knowlton
This past weekend, the Wang Center held the Tournées Festival, a program created to bring new French films to college campuses across the country. The Stony Brook festival showed five films over two days, and I managed to see two, Persepolis and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Released in 2007, Persepolis is the animated version of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same title. It’s the story of Satrapi growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the years that followed. Told mostly through flashback, the film is focused on Satrapi remembering her childhood as she waits in a French airport after being unable to get on a flight to Iran. It begins with a girl of around ten or so, fairly oblivious to the world outside of her own imagination. As she grows, she becomes aware of the political situation in Iran, but she consciously rebels against the fundamentalist regime voted into place. She is sent to Austria by her parents, falls in love, lives on the streets and comes back to Iran. There she maintains her rebellious streak at university, until it becomes unsafe for her to remain in Iran, so she is sent off to France. From there she is unable to come home.
The film is almost entirely in black and white, with a rather simplistic style. It was refreshing to see a traditionally animated film, let alone one with such a plain style. The emphasis is placed on the story and the characters, not flashy animation techniques and bright colors trying to grab your attention. Having not read the graphic novel, I don’t know how close the animation is to the source material. Regardless, I believe it does Satrapi’s story justice. There is a surprising amount of humor in the film, proving that there was some lightness to life, in spite of the oppressive political climate. It felt kind of odd laughing because I knew what was happening to people outside of Satrapi’s world. Persepolis is an amazing, but slightly odd film. It’s funny, sad and it can break your heart; basically all the things that every other movie on the face of the earth wishes it could be.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is another film based on an autobiographical work; in this case, it is an adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. In 1995, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, and when we came out his coma, he was fully paralyzed, save for his left eyelid, but he was aware of his surroundings. Eventually, he managed to communicate through a translator who recited a version of the alphabet, having Bauby blinking to indicate each letter of a word. Through this method, he managed to write the entirety of his memoir. Unfortunately, ten days after his book was published, he died from pneumonia.
This film was directed brilliantly by Julian Schnabel, who took Bauby’s writings and translated them in such a way that the audience could at least try to feel how Bauby felt. The first part of the film is almost entirely from Bauby’s own eye. The camera is blurry as Bauby first awakes from is coma, it “blinks” and is unable to follow people as they move around a room, giving the viewer only a partial view of whoever is talking to him. Eventually, as Bauby manages to begin to communicate and interact with the world, the perspective shifts third person, and it makes it easier to see the whole picture and get the whole story.
Mathieu Amalric, who plays Bauby, does an amazing job, especially considering he only can move one eye and give us a voice over narration. The rest of the cast is fantastic, all shown trying to cope with a husband, friend or patient who has this rare condition. There are no weak performances that bring the film down, allowing it to be a fitting tribute to a man and his incredible story.