The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Director: Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls, Basquiat)
Novel: Jean-Dominique Bauby
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 112 min.
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
      It’s easy to see why The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has shown up on several top ten lists this year; for either acting, directing, cinematography or simply best picture overall. While I’ve yet to see Schnabel’s previous works, which I understand are impeccable, I can see this latest going down as a top notch discussion film that has a lot of unique aspects about it and if nothing else is a contemplation piece to the Nth degree.

      Really trying to avoid any pre-conception of the film, I only went in to the movie knowing the title and a brief glimpse of the one-sheet. Other than that info, I knew nothing about the film in hopes that it would surprise and awe me. It did a little bit of both, though it’s not anywhere near any of my top picks on the year. Still it has a lot of things going for it and can completely understand why some may assign a five star rating to this visually and emotionally interesting film.

      While I went into the film without any idea of what’s about to happen, so goes the film’s opening to the audience and it’s main character, Jean-Dominque. There are light flutters and muffled voices; out of focus shots and color flickering. Soon we see that there are two or three people in a room and they are directly speaking at the camera. Then it becomes obvious that they’re not speaking to the camera, they’re speaking to a man lying on a bed and we’re seeing the world through his perspective. In this way the director immediately puts the audience in the same position as our main character: at the mercy of our ailment. In this case it is the debilitating effects of a stroke.

      For the first thirty minutes or so, the film continuously keeps us only where the director wants us to be; which is stuck inside the crippled head of our protagonist. Since our protagonist, as we learn from the doctors talking to us, can only move his eyes and is completely paralyzed otherwise, so too is the camera only able to see what is available to a person in such a state. Therefore, we can see the walls, the window and just the edge of a table with some flowers. It’s an extremely frustrating, though fascinating, experience.

      While only able to see what is right in front of us, thankfully the doctors emerge from time to time and put us in a wheelchair to allow us to roam the hospital. Mathieu Amalric provides narration as to what the patient (i.e. us) is thinking. This can sometimes be painful pleads, sad lonliness or even a bit of light humor.

      This entire experience is really a fascinating way to put a film together. In this way, the audience is totally put in the shoes of our character and in a way, provides a subtle glimpse into what the agony of a stroke might be like; as completely as is possible by a film anyway.

      After this intitial frustration, we’re finally let off the hook by the director and the film slowly transforms into more standard, third person shots. We see Jean-Domique (aka ourselves) as he appears to others, which can be a jarring experience at first as he looks a little odd and we sort of were him for thirty minutes. More frustration ensues though as soon, we have to endure Jean-Dominique’s rehabilitation and attempts at communicating. Since he can make no sounds or gestures, his only communication is a blinking eyeball. Our speech therapist devises a communication tool: listing off letters one by one until Jean-Domique blinks. That’s one letter down. We go through the process again: E, A, S, R, L, D, N, O, M, T, P, C, I, K, J BLINK. That’s another letter. Throughout the film, we’re forced to undergo this frustrating method of communication that although we’re not inside Jean-Dominique’s head anymore, we’re still forced to empathize with him as communication seems unbearable. At times this communication can be quite important and others very light-hearted or emotional.

      While the movie is really a true story, character study about a once wealthy, egotistical, pompous magazine (Elle) editor, ultimately it forces an introspective analysis on our own character and strengths and weaknesses. While this could easily become the typical, sappy Oscar-bait, Schnabel asks us to instead be patient and truly understand what our character is going through. Forcing us to not only sympathize, but empathize.

      Mathieu Amalric’s performance is difficult to assess. Is it brilliant for it’s sheer power and believability, or is it’s simplicity and “ease” something that anyone could’ve done? After all, he sits in a chair, doesn’t move and blinks. I happen to think it’s pretty reamarkable and likely a gruelling experience even if it’s not all that visually impressive.

      The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a unique look at the typical “overcoming adversity” type of film. It goes beyond anything I’d normally expect and the character’s will and temperment is remarkably strong as he accomplishes what might sound impossible of someone in his condition. Because of the nature of the film however, it’s not without weakness. There are a few segments sprinkled throughout the movie that do seem to drag a bit. And while the opening sequence (ten minutes or so) is unique and gives us true perspective, it flirts with being annoying after a while. Blurry shots and flickering images are generally not what I pay for in a movie. Still, with some of the most gorgeous cinematography as of recent, Schnabel has given us something that’s not only impressive, but also extraordinary.

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