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Film Reviews
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Directed By: Julien Schnabel

Genre: Biography/Drama

Release Date: May 23, 2007

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Miramax Films (2007) (USA)


by Jay Blodgett

This film is a work of art and one of my favorite experiences of the year. Director Julien Schnabel, screenwriter Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have adapted Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir and created something so specifically cinematic, it gave me visual goosebumps and emotionally choked me up, more than once. Neither the synopsis, the press or, particularly the lackluster poster, prepared me for the journey.

I was able to see this film recently at a special free screening at the Rich Theatre, High Museum in Atlanta. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was the winner of the Best Director award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

After the expressionistic opening credits, Schnabel opens the film by being quite literal to the situation. However, he achieves it through visually avant garde means. The opening sequence, in which Bauby opens his eyes, is straight out of Stan Brakhage's experimental work, or as he referred to it, "personal cinema." This (unintentional?) homage to Brakhage's 'personal cinema' perfectly frames the point-of-view that we will be experiencing for the majority of the next two hours, both visually and poetically. Schnabel maintains that first person POV almost relentlessly. He visually traps the audience in the "paralyzed" frame, as is the character trapped in his paralyzed body. Though the flashbacks and dream sequences might have been meant as dramatic and visual relief from the extremity of the POV, I for one was so emotionally involved in "being" Bauby, that I found these moments to be more distracting and stylistically disjointed. I was so fascinated by the cinematography and editing (Juliette Welfling) involved in maintaining the first person, that breaking away from it, in a cinematically conventional sense, also broke me away from the unique visceral experience I felt when trapped in Bauby's world.

Ronald Harwood's screenplay transcends a literal adaption of the memoir and becomes an auditory meditation. The complexity of the layering of language, provides a verbal soundtrack, as the repetition of the alphabet (minor spoiler there) becomes a meditative drone underscoring the scenes in which Bauby communicates with the world. Harwood's gradual revelation of the physical appearance of the man who was the editor of ELLE, to himself, is suspensefully articulated. Harwood slowly introduces us to the exterior of Bauby in almost the same way and pacing that a monster would be introduced in a horror film.

The technical and artistic achievements that Schnabel and his crew created nearly overshadow the performances. For the most part, the cast is as much a technical part of realizing Schnabel's vision as anything else in the production. Mathieu Amalric's performance as Bauby is mostly narration. There can be an argument about the outrageous challenge of portraying a character whose only movement is his left eye. However, Amalric is given the opportunity of physical choices during the flashbacks, where, as I stated earlier, these scenes are almost so conventional that the thrill of the challenges during his "present" are missing. However, Amalric does have a couple scenes with the ever incredible Max Von Sydow as his father. (How old is he?!)

The rest of the cast has the challenge of playing directly into the camera. Emmanuelle Seigner plays the emotionally complicated role of his partner and mother of his children. She carries the responsibility of revealing the emotional life he lived before the stroke. Marie-Josee Croze, as his speech therapist Henriette, has the technical challenge of delivering the "alphabetic drone" through out her scenes, yet maintaining an emotional connection, which she succeeds at.

If there is anything a tad annoying, it is the sub-titling during the exceptionally specific moments when he is communicating with the outside world. Due to the requirements of translating letter by letter, the language and subtitling are necessarily out of sync. I would have preferred a literal subtitle of the letters, followed by the English translation of the word.

Once the film enters the section of Bauby dictating his memoirs, it focuses more on the extraordinary, if near miraculous achievement, instead of the tedious, if not nearly excruciating process. However, the outrageous cinematic technique, as well as the physical exertion that created the memoir itself, is what grants forgiveness to the simplistic, if not nearly trite, allusion to "the diving bell and the butterfly."

For more fascinating reviews, see
"Life with Movies and Maxxxxx" by Jay Blodgett

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