In Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s powerful memoir of the same name, Max von Sydow has only two scenes, but they resonate so strongly they give the film another dimension. In the first, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the dynamic editor of French Elle magazine, has dropped by to see his father (Von Sydow), and the pair engage in affectionate banter as Bauby gives the older man a shave. Von Sydow’s character likes what he sees in the mirror, a handsome, distinguished face -- he boasts of having had more affairs than anyone “except perhaps Casanova.”
In the other scene, much later in the film, the father telephones his son, who has in the meantime suffered a stroke that has left him almost completely paralyzed at the age of 43. Bauby lies in a hospital bed in a faraway seaside town, receiving round-the-clock care, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. Housebound in his Paris apartment and looking every one of his 92 years, the father doubles over in grief, powerless to come to his son’s aid.
That Von Sydow’s electrifying presence charges the entire film is hardly surprising; the Sweden-born thespian has been pulling off such staggering feats for half a century. He is arguably most renowned in critical circles for the 11 films he made with Ingmar Bergman, including such landmarks as “The Magician,” “The Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly” and, of course, “The Seventh Seal.” Von Sydow’s chess match with Death in that film is one of the most iconic images in cinema. But his creative partnership with the venerable director is only one aspect of a prolific, multifaceted career that has spanned decades and 80 films of almost every genre.
Since George Stevens cast him as Jesus Christ in 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Von Sydow has been working steadily in an eclectic mix of international productions. In the 1970s, he and director Jan Troell partnered on “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” a two-part odyssey of Swedish immigration to America, and he starred in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” as the ill-fated Father Merrin. The 1980s saw Von Sydow do not only Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Bille August’s great agrarian epic “Pelle the Conqueror,” for which he received his only Oscar nomination, but also broader fare. He tackled the villain Blofeld opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in “Never Say Never Again” and played the heavy in offbeat films such as “Strange Brew” and “Flash Gordon,” showcasing his generally underutilized comedic talents.
These days, Von Sydow divides his time between Europe and Hollywood, and he continues to work steadily. But he said Ronald Harwood’s script for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” offered him a rare opportunity, something difficult to come by at age 78.
“Most screenplays I receive are boring, and some are straight-out bad,” said Von Sydow in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “But I was so taken by the entire thing I did something I never did before: I wrote a letter to the writer and told him that I thought it was a great script.”
He regards the real-life Bauby, who drew upon his fertile imagination to produce a triumphant memoir, as a real hero “with will and determination.” (Bauby died just days after “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was published.)
“I did my scenes in one day, and I did it for free,” Von Sydow said. “Most roles I am offered are fathers or grandfathers who die after 25 pages.”
Standing about 6-foot-4, Von Sydow is an inherently imposing screen presence with distinctive chiseled features. But in person, he is a warm, unpretentious man profoundly grateful for a career that he himself refuses to consider remarkable.
“When I was brought up in Sweden there was a great opportunity for young people to learn how to act in our municipal theaters with their small companies,” he said. “You would be under contract for eight months and have the summer free to take other opportunities. We would do one play a month -- from the classics or modern plays, tragedies or comedies, in leading roles or small parts. It’s the only way to learn -- by doing.”
The Bergman connection
Eventually, Von Sydow, who studied at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1948 to 1951, came to the attention of Bergman, who directed him in theater before casting him in a small part in “Wild Strawberries” (1956). “My relationship with him is the most important thing in my life,” Von Sydow said. “I was lucky enough to meet him when I was young, still playing in municipal theaters. His ethics -- that was the most important thing I learned from him. They became my ethics -- my relationship to my profession. I see all my films with him as one piece of work.”
While Von Sydow is steeped in Sweden’s rich film and theatrical history, he has resided for some time in Paris with his French wife, documentary filmmaker Cathrine Brelet, with whom he has two sons. (He also has two sons from an earlier marriage.) Yvan, his elder child with Brelet, is a painter living in the South of France, while younger son Cedric is a filmmaker currently doing a documentary on his father.
Despite having just appeared in this summer’s action sequel “Rush Hour 3" in addition to “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the upcoming drama “Emotional Arithmetic” -- which tells the story of a man (Von Sydow) who is reunited with a now grown woman whose life he saved during the Holocaust -- Von Sydow insists he’s getting lazy. Stressing the rewards of family life (he describes himself and his wife as a team), he said with a contented smile, “There are lots of things for me to do apart from films.”