Movie is strong Palme d'Or contender

Miramax Films has won the bidding war for Julian Schnabel’s French-language “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” paying between $2 million and $3 million for North American rights.

Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) and Schnabel adapted the script from the autobiography by Jean-Dominque Bauby. The movie is considered a strong contender for the Palme d’Or.

Miramax would not officially spell out its release plans, but a fall platform opening and a festival circuit are in the offing, along with a commitment to a major Oscar campaign.

Harvey Weinstein made a run at a preemptive buy in Paris before the fest, but Pathe demanded $5 million for North America, which was too rich for Weinstein’s blood sight unseen. The filmmakers felt strongly that they should screen the pic in Cannes and then determine its rightful home.

With a notable contribution by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the film tells the story of Bauby, the onetime editor-in-chief of Elle France who suffered a stroke that rendered him paralyzed except for his left eye. He learned to communicate via a series of blinks that represented letters of the alphabet and dictated his memoir in that fashion.

Mathieu Amalric (“Munich”), Emmanuelle Seigner and Max Von Sydow star. The producers are Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik. Kennedy developed the project as a DreamWorks movie for Johnny Depp, who in turn brought in Julian Schnabel. When Depp bowed out due to his “Pirates” commitments, Schnabel brought in Kilik, who managed to convince everyone that the movie should be shot on a lower budget in France, in French.

“Trying to reconstruct this story in California somewhere with an American actor speaking with a French accent seemed absurd to me,” said Schnabel. “A Frenchman wrote a subject that is universal.”

Its first screening, Thursday at 8:30 a.m., was perhaps the toughest ticket of Cannes as company toppers jockeyed for seats. Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek, who enjoys a close relationship with Pathe, was among them.

“I have been following this project for some time,” he said. “I came to it through the book. … It had an extraordinary impact on me, as did the screenplay. So it had been something I’d been keen to do and is especially so now that I have seen how beautifully it has been adapted for the screen.”

Battsek confirmed the existence of an English-language version of the film recorded by the French actors, which could help with ancillary sales of the film. “I will have to assess that as we go forward,” Battsek said, “but certainly that is an asset.”

That the film is, for now, a subtitled French-language pic limits the potential for homevideo sales. But given “the subject matter and the way it is handled,” Battsek said, “we hope we can break down even more barriers” than some recent foreign-film success stories.

Foreign-language pics “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “House of Flying Daggers” found success on DVD, but they were positioned as genre titles; artier fare such as “The Motorcycle Diaries” has not fared so well.

People pointed to “The Sea Inside” as an analog, and doubters noted how that film underperformed.

Battsek rejected that comparison, however. “I really see it as more comparable to ‘My Left Foot’ (which grossed $15 million in 1989) in that it’s about the triumph of the human spirit. It’s not about the medical condition. In ‘Sea Inside,’ which was a brilliant film, he wanted to die, and that’s what made it difficult to connect with audiences. This film is more about compassion and a lust for life.”

Battsek is not concerned about dealing with painter-turned-director Schnabel, who has a rep as a demanding filmmaker when it comes to releasing and awards positioning. “He wanted to have a real partner,” Battsek said. “Due to our track record and our passion for the movie, he felt we were the right company, and we look forward to the journey to wherever this film takes us.”

Kilik cited Miramax’s “passion, taste, track record, vision for our film and Daniel Battsek’s great job on ‘The Queen'” as reasons for choosing the company over its many rivals, including ThinkFilm, 2929/Magnolia and Warner Independent Pictures.

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