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."
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.