Depth Perception

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

In the obligatory press blitz he's doing to promote his eerily beautiful, nearly critic-proof movie, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the painter and film director Julian Schnabel made one reporter lie down with him on the floor to contemplate the ceiling. (She didn't want to, but according to her story, she did it, and she liked it.) Others he's thrown into his convertible for a quick ramble around his neighborhood by the sea in Montauk, N.Y. Others get to go to his studio and watch his art minions do his bidding.

For us, it seems far too clinical: a late lunch in a deserted Fahrenheit restaurant in the Georgetown Ritz on a Wednesday afternoon. Schnabel, 56, arrives tired and famished. His movie is the true story of a debonair Frenchman trapped inside his own body, paralyzed by stroke, able to only blink his left eye. (Our movie is about a reporter able to only do interviews in hotels. It is quelle tragique.)

Schnabel's neo-expressionist paintings -- admired, derided, retrospected and, most of all, collected -- have always been expensive and huge, and so has he.

According to legend, Schnabel is a pompous perfectionist, demanding of attention in the nicest possible way. His talk about New York in the 1980s makes it seem like the Stone Age. He just built a 17-story Italianate palazzo as a new home and studio in New York's West Village, and painted it bright pink (the neighbors are still howling), and he's sold apartments in his building to the likes of Richard Gere. (Other potential "schneighbors" come and go in the real-estate gossip pages.)

Schnabel is a constant name-dropper, but that's because those names are the only people he knows. He assumes you've read your French philosophers, that you can follow along as he quotes W.H. Auden's "Mus┬┐e des Beaux Arts," and that you probably know Christopher Walken and Tom Waits just as well as he does. He seems easily bored, distracted.

He's made three movies in 11 years, each meticulously chosen, each about artists who died. One of them, "Basquiat," was perfectly fine art-house fodder and starred all his new friends playing all his old friends. The next one ("Before Night Falls," the 2000 adaptation of exiled Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas's memoir) was even better. This one, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (opening Friday), is just so sit-there-through-the-credits good, so fully realized, Schnabel can hardly stand it.

"This movie . . . it heals people," he says.

Since its debut at Cannes in May (where Schnabel took the directing prize), people have come up to him to spill forth stories of loved ones who suffered strokes or other paralyzing events that left them immobile or incommunicative. Hospitals are booking special screenings for patients and doctors. The ultimate claustrophobia of "locked-in syndrome" turns out to be a universal nightmare. People are going to need to talk to him.

He's trying to be open to that sort of outpouring. "I can do it," he says. "It's a big deal to people. It is something that everyone is terrified of. . . . I was terrified of death before I made this movie."

He has every reason to feel satisfied.

For us, today, he's Gentle Ben, a grizzly giant at feeding time. He's as interesting as a big tube of paint -- you want to squeeze him and see what raw color oozes out of his copper-curled head. He is wearing his trademark pajamas (they are the faded purple, with enough buttons open to display a lush jungle of chest hair) and a tweedy sport coat. From his head and his pockets he collects and sets on the table three kinds of eyewear: Buddy Holly horn-rims for seeing and two pairs of sunglasses for being seen.

He is always correcting the picture in front of him: "Wait, you said you were super-hungry," he interjects when we order tomato soup, and so it's a cheeseburger and fries instead. Schnabel has the hanger steak and we split a seafood scampi salad. The entire interview is the sound of two men interrupting one another, talking about death and hospitals while smacking and chewing.

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