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DVD Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
MrOodles   |  

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly DVDThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Emma De Caunes, Max von Sydow
Miramax Films
Release Date: April 29, 2008

Pretentiousness and despair. Pretentiousness and despair. When presented with a French film, an American viewer is usually aware of one or both of these. Pretentiousness because French cinema is generalized as condescending and difficult to understand. Despair because the existential culture that pervades said films drives one to feel alone and responsible for the miseries of life.

When I sit down with my bowl of popcorn and my Budweiser to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — the true story of Elle magazine’s editor-in-chief, I get the feeling that this film and I might not mesh completely. In fact, my relationship with the film was rocky from the start. I entered the experience having left last Oscar season behind me and fully prepared for the explosions, cheap laughs, and heavy CGI that summer brings. As such, when the opening credits stop, and we are presented with Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) point of view as he wakes from his stroke-induced coma, I was not emotionally prepared to take on Jean-Do’s plight. Nor was I mentally prepared to deal with all of the experimental cinematography – which is expertly created by Janusz Kaminsk (that’s Ya-noosh, like the possessed painter in Ghostbusters 2).

Looking through Bauby’s eyes for the majority of the movie is tolling on the viewer, but certainly this tactic has never been more effective. You begin to understand Bauby’s pain, his frustrations, and his need for infinite patience as he moves through his ordeal at a glacier-like pace. I certainly needed those things to get through this flick. Bauby is afflicted with locked-in syndrome. The disease is the result of a stroke that leaves every muscle in his body paralyzed except, in this case, his left eye. He can still hear and see, but his only form of communication with the outside world is through blinking.

Perhaps the best tactic in Diving Bell is the constant, repetitive dictation that Bauby’s nurse, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), estranged wife, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), and secretary, Claude (Anne Consigny), use to communicate with Jean-Do. The sound of the recitations — letters ordered by frequency of use — echo throughout the picture. No viewer will be able to escape the repetition that was Bauby’s post-coma life.

As Bauby learns to communicate, he contacts his publisher and pitches, via translation through Henriette, a book about the “pitfalls” of locked-in syndrome. The publisher sends Claude to receive the dictation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. What follows is a collage of Bauby’s life — the events leading up to his coma, his affair with his beautiful mistress, time he spent with his father, writing the book, going through physical therapy, time with his family on the beach, all events used to bring out the man we are forced to sympathize with. The movie is not so much built around telling a story, but painting a picture of Bauby’s character. Nothing is spoon-fed to the viewer. We are familiarized with Bauby’s despair as well as his resolve.

Mathieu Amalric is asked to do very little in creating Bauby (though he does take on a difficult role with the utmost skill), as Kaminsk and working-man director Julian Schnabel are the true voice for Jean-Do. Schnabel is a soft-spoken, no-nonsense, blue-collar, hyphen-worthy director. He is difficult to figure from the movie as well as the director commentary featured on the DVD. The most telling aspects of Schnabel’s direction come from images of him in the DVD’s “making-of” video. Flannel-clad with a Brooklyn accent, Julian Schnabel’s demeanor allows you to understand why Diving Bell is without the usual pretentiousness and despair. The most telling moment on the DVD occurs in the documentary, “Submerged: The Making of The Diving bell and the Butterfly.” Early in shooting, Schnabel has a vision for a scene where Bauby is sitting on a lifeguard stand above high tide at the beach outside of his hospital. For that scene, Schnabel, clad in only a towel around his waist, carries Amalric on his shoulders through the cold, Northern France waters and places him on the stand. Imagine George Lucas or Joel Coen walking through the ocean, half-naked! The man is wholly modest. From that point on, Schnabel had very little difficulty getting the crew to do what he needed of them. This is a tactic that should be taught in film school as well as business management.

Schnabel is a director of the proletariat. This in no way describes his abilities, which are of the highest quality. Schnabel’s modesty and the desire he has to tell the bare-bones story make The Diving Bell and the Buttefly completely void of pretentiousness. The despair is more difficult to overcome. This material was 50% depressing. That said, Bauby makes the most of his trying situation, and it leads the viewer, and certainly the writer of this review, to believe that any task can be achieved, despite an intense desire for suicide. There is hope in this film, and thanks to the skilled filmmakers involved, any audience can take part in that hope.

P.S. The significance of the title has something to do with a deep sea diving contraption from the middle ages — a “diving bell.” It’s supposed to symbolize being trapped or some such nonsense. The explosion of creativity as a butterfly escapes its cocoon explains the butterfly part. I think its dumb, but Bauby was a French guy, so I understand.

1 Comment »

  1. One of a kind film– parts of it reminded me of Johnny Got His Gun.
    Very intense film to sit through. Too intense, but brilliant.

    Comment by Cinema Junkie — May 14, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

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