Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The (France/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For many people, there is no hell more unimaginable than having a healthy, active mind trapped in a paralyzed husk of a body. Some of those in this situation seek a quick end to their misery (as was the case with Ramon Sampedro, whose tale was dramatized in the 2004 feature, The Sea Inside); others fight tooth and nail to regain even the smallest foothold into the life they once knew. With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel not only wants to narrate the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby; he wants the audience to become immersed in Bauby's world. To this end, he employs cinematographic techniques in ways that have not previously been used in a mainstream, narrative feature. As a result, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly can at times be an unsettling experience.

The film opens in December 1995. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathiew Amalric), the editor of Elle magazine, has just suffered a massive stroke that has "turned off" his brain stem. He has become a victim of "locked-in" syndrome, a prisoner in his own mind - unable to talk or move. His only means of communication is by blinking one eye. Initially, one blink is for "yes" and two are for "no." Eventually, a speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) arrives at a way to allow Jean-Do to form compete thoughts. It's time consuming (and involves a rapid recitation of the alphabet in the order of most common to least common letters) but effective. With the help of an editor (Anne Consigny), he writes a novel called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which details his experiences and thoughts. The entire book is dictated using the eye-blink communication method and takes over a year to complete.

In the meantime, Jean-Do's interpersonal relationships alter. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, stays by his side regardless of how difficult the circumstances are. Jean-Do initially refuses to be visited by his two daughters and son, not wanting them to see him in his current condition, but he eventually relents. His mistress claims to still love him but will not go to the hospital. And he is only able to carry on a fragmented conversation with his aging father (Max von Sydow), whose own poor health will not allow him to leave his apartment. The scene in which they "speak" to one another, both trapped by their own limitations, is heart-wrenching.

Schnabel is not content merely to tell Jean-Do's story. With the aid of veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he makes the first 30 minutes into a first person experience. We see through Jean-Do's eyes. His internal monologue tells us his thoughts, but everything else that we see and hear is what his ears and eye absorb. Initially, the unfamiliar approach is uncomfortable and disorienting, but we gradually become used to it and understand why Schnabel has chosen to take viewers down this path. After roughly the half-hour mark, Schnabel begins to incorporate more traditional, third-person shots. As the film progresses, the views through Jean-Do's eye incorporate flashbacks and flights of fancy (and instances when they mix).

The uniqueness of Schnabel's vision earned him a Best Director award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly conveys information about this sort of "trapped" life in a way that no previous feature has been able to. In many ways, it's a harrowing experience but it's not without moments of low-key humor, and the ultimate message is a positive one. Those who have gone through similar experiences with loved ones have affirmed its veracity. And the filmmakers do not make the fatal error of lionizing their protagonist. Jean-Do was no saint before his stroke and he is not one after it. This is especially obvious in the way he uses (and one might argue, abuses) Celine's caring nature. Having her translate a conversation between him and his mistress shows, at best, a lack of tact.

The acting, as one might expect, is top-notch. Mathiew Almaric (Munich) provides a portrayal of Jean-Do as both the pre-stroke womanizer and the man whose force of personality shines through his useless husk of a body. It is crucial that we empathize with Jean-Do but not pity him, and Almaric's acting provides a cornerstone for that emotional response. The women in his life - Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny - fill their roles ably, each offering a slightly different prism through which to see the main character. Max von Sydow's work here is as moving as anything he has done in the last 20 years.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly triumphs because of its honesty and its refusal to allow the character to wallow in self-pity. Approached differently, this could have been a downer, but Schnabel wanted the film to act as an affirmation of life. He wants us to leave the theater appreciating what we have and what we can experience. Do not be dissuaded by the subject matter. This is a special motion picture that achieves its higher agenda of doing much more than idly plucking at a few heartstrings.

Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The (France/United States, 2007)

Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1