The eyes have it

Times Staff Writer

The tented breakfast area at the Hotel Bel-Air was mostly empty on a cool, gray morning earlier this month. A well-dressed man sat in a booth. In an adjacent booth was the Golden Globe-nominated director of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Julian Schnabel.

Schnabel, famous as a painter from the early 1980s Warhol-ian New York art scene, is a bear of a person. He arrived from his room ensconced in two shirts, an overcoat, pants with sneakers but no socks. He has a reddish tangle of hair and matching beard, mixed with gray. His eyes were obscured by the sort of horn-rimmed sunglasses that are part of Jack Nicholson's uniform at Lakers games.

"What would you like? Do you like Mexican food?" was one of the first things he said. In the next hour he would talk movingly of his father's death, say that "The Diving Bell" is "all about my relationship with women" and become distracted by ambient cellphone chatter -- that other guy, in the next booth -- all while negotiating the delivery of chilaquiles for breakfast.

Schnabel was in town to attend a GQ party at the Chateau Marmont -- the magazine had named him "Visionary of the Year" -- and to continue to talk up "The Diving Bell."

The movie is based on the mordant, spare memoir by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle magazine who, at 42, suffered a stroke that left him intact mentally but unable to move or feel any of his extremities. From this existential state, Bauby managed to report on his experience by memorizing what he wanted to write each morning before a translator arrived to take down his thoughts, Bauby blinking the letters from a special alphabet. He had only the use of his left eye.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" opened a month ago to insanely glowing reviews but limited viewership -- just three screens, two in New York and one in Los Angeles (it opened in wider release this weekend). And though the movie was made in French, with a French cast (and was Golden Globe-nominated as best foreign-language film), it is ineligible for best foreign-language film at the Oscars because its screenwriter is British and two of its producers are American.

As for Schnabel, he's from New York and Texas.

"So you know, I love this film," he said, once it had been determined that the chef had a ranchero sauce as opposed to a tomatillo for the chilaquiles. "For me, it was such an important thing to do, just in regard to my father's death."

Schnabel moved his father into his West Village home and studio, dubbed the Palazzo Chupi. (He recently finished a high-rise expansion over his own living space, the addition done in a shade of reddish-pink, with condos.)

Schnabel, 56, lives there with his second wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who plays one of the nurses in "The Diving Bell." His father died of prostate cancer in 2004, at age 92, sometimes sleeping and eating in the couple's bed, Schnabel said.

This ideal of filial connection produces "The Diving Bell's" most intimate scene, when Bauby, seen in flashback, shaves his elderly father, who is played by Max von Sydow. Though Schnabel makes sure to say that Ronald Harwood "wrote a beautiful script," it is clear that he made the film in ways that touch on his own narrative.

There are, for instance, Bauby/Schnabel's women, played in the movie by a parade of French actresses, each one as stunning as the next. Bauby's memoir is discreet about all of this, but in the movie the protagonist is loved by the mother of his children, loved by the lover who can't bring herself to come to the hospital, loved, perhaps, by the nurse who teaches him the new alphabet, loved by the woman sent to take his dictation.

Schnabel says the gaggle of women jockeying for position was "like a nest of hornets" around the paralyzed editor, based on information Schnabel said he ferreted out from several Bauby intimates, including his girlfriend.

Bauby's girlfriend told Schnabel they'd once sat behind him at the bullfights in Nimes, France.

Schnabel said that for several years he had some paintings displayed there in the Maison Carree, a Roman temple. "So I was sort of a resident of Nimes."

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Mexican food aficionado

By then, the chilaquiles had arrived. Schnabel, who has been going to Mexico since he was a teenager, surfing there, was a little crestfallen at the result.

"You know what I'm gonna do?" he said to the server. "You know what, I'm gonna wait, I'm gonna eat later. Actually we can save this. I think they're very good, I'm gonna give him another chance, but I'll order them later."

As he talked about the movie, though, he continued to eat.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is Schnabel's third film; he also directed 1996's "Basquiat," about the up-from-the-streets New York painter Jean Michel Basquiat, and the 2003 film "Before Night Falls," about the Cuban poet and novelist Renaldo Arenas.

Basquiat died of a drug overdose and Arenas died of AIDS. Bauby is less a martyred artist than a person who gave witness, sometimes wittily, sometimes movingly, about his absurd fate by means of a painstaking, lonely process that, to Schnabel, mirrors life for people who make art.

"You don't understand that until you realize, 'OK, Mathieu's lying there,' " Schnabel said of Mathieu Amalric, who plays Bauby in the film. "He's got a patch over one eye, he's got a contact lens that's bloodshot in the other, a piece of plastic in his nose, a bite plate in his mouth, his lip's glued to his face, he's lying there with his hands on the foam, and he is not moving. So people act like he's not there. He is invisible. Now at first he's angry that people don't notice him. Later, he can really have a sense of humor about it, because he can have conversations with himself.

". . . That world," Schnabel added, "particularly if you close your eyes, gets quite large. If I didn't go do this, I never could have said that to you. I never could have thought about it like that. And then you start thinking about, what is the present?

"Close your eyes," Schnabel suddenly instructed. The director, too, closed his eyes.

"So we're talking, you and me, we're not seeing each other. And I'm in a car right now and you're on the phone with me. And so, you're interviewing me. Say we're doing an interview and it's over the phone, OK? You know that I'm in a car in New York -- hey, I just passed. . . ." He paused. "Hey, David how are you?"

David Linde, co-chairman of Universal Pictures, had dropped by the table.

"Good to see you," Linde said.

"Have you seen the movie yet?" Schnabel asked. "See it."

Linde moved on.

"He was working for Harvey Weinstein when we did 'Basquiat.'

". . . so anyway, our eyes were closed, right. . . ."

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Not 'lost in the wash'

If every Oscar season seems to produce a latchkey movie -- a film with an almost unimpeachable pedigree but otherwise destined to be forgotten by Oscar -- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a leading contender. There are, after all, no stars in the movie, to go along with its difficult subject matter and non-English tongue.

"We just didn't want [it] to get lost in the wash," said Miramax chief Daniel Battsek of the initial three-screen release amid a tide of end-of-the-year Oscar contenders like "Atonement" and "No Country for Old Men," another Miramax film.

Speaking by phone the morning of the Golden Globe nominations, which recognized Schnabel for best director and Harwood for best screenplay, Battsek said of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. recognition: "It basically says what we have been saying from Day One, which is, this movie exists outside boundaries of language."

Regardless, Schnabel said he plans to be in L.A. around Oscar season. The Gagosian Gallery now wants his work to be part of its Oscar-week show in Beverly Hills, he said.

The breakfast, by then, was winding down. Schnabel had the complimentary fruit plate and the refried beans sent to his room. "I hate to throw food away," he said. A room service call was arranged and Schnabel laughed. "I feel like Jack Nicholson," he said, referring to Nicholson's infamous chicken salad sandwich order in "Five Easy Pieces."

Schnabel returned to the subject at hand -- the difference between the filmmaker's imperative to sell his film and the painter's imperative not to sell his painting.

Schnabel has been accused of doing both.

"People, they always criticize paintings. Criticism, they call it . . . but people love to love movies. And they love to love actors. And movie directors," he said. ". . . It's a language that's more accessible.

"Painting, the people that like it walk up to it, they don't know what it means necessarily, they don't know how you made it. But . . . they like the mystery of that. . . . It's speaking in this other language."

He gets asked, he said, how his filmmaking has influenced his painting. "I would say my painting has influenced my filmmaking. I mean, I've been a painter all my life, so the way I approach making a movie is more to do with being spontaneous. . . . Setting everything up until I get to that moment. Or not having a hierarchal view of things. Like, something that might be a word might not be more meaningful than just a sound, or the lack of a sound. So it's like a Whitmanesque sort of plane. Which is something I've thought about as a painter my whole life -- my conscious life as a painter."

Still, in this world of David Lindes and chilaquiles at the Bel-Air with your eyes wide shut, there is room to wonder aloud, as Schnabel had: "I could win the Oscar, I guess, for what, best picture. Do you think that's going to happen?"

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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