The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Marina Hands, Max von Sydow
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Based on the real life memoir of the same name by former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly details his life after a debilitating stroke leaves him afflicted with locked-in syndrome at the age of 43. As a result, Bauby was completely paralysed, while still mentally intact, trapped in his own body, with his only means of communication being the blinking of his left eye.
Julian Schnabel creatively overcomes what easily could’ve been a visually restrictive story by presenting most of the film through Jean-Do’s POV, matching his internal dialogue to the world he sees through his only functioning eye. It’s quite disorienting at first (by design, to illustrate what the experience is like for Jean-Do himself), making it a difficult movie to watch for those who have been bitching of late about movies that have employed hand-held visuals. The result is that we instantly get a glimpse of the world from the perspective of the infirmed, uniquely sharing Jean-Do’s frustrations without any showy monologues or typical disease-of-the-week type manipulations.
Schnabel’s direction is the most notable feature of the movie, using the camera in original fashion to help craft its main character and his world. In doing so, Schnabel has created not only a visually compelling feature, but also a beautifully poetic movie that explores the world inside Bauby’s head as well as the world through his eye. Schnabel is assisted by the phenomenal cinematography of Janusz Kaminski that captures how the unaccustomed eye of Bauby meets sunlight with an aural glow and the masterful adaptation of Ronald Harwood, who takes Bauby’s brisk story and turns it into not only a presentation of Jean-Do’s experiences, but also the experience of writing the book itself.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Mathieu Amalric starring as Jean-Do Bauby in scenes when the film shifts from the first-person POV (such as flashbacks) and narrating his internal monologue throughout. Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, and Anne Consigny each inject the movie with life and humanity as Bauby’s connections to the outside world, with Seigner portraying his former lover, Croze as his speech therapist who comes up with a way for Bauby to communicate despite his condition, and Consigny as the assistant who takes his dictation. Each has a difficult job, in that they have to do the majority of their acting in tight close-ups through the confined space of Bauby’s POV, all lovingly filmed by Kaminski, reflective of Bauby’s admiration of them. The stand-out of the cast is Max von Sydow, who gives the film its biggest emotional heft as Bauby’s infirmed father.
All the performances combine with Schnabel’s masterful direction to create an achingly beautiful movie that is the most emotionally affecting movie of the year. Given the nature of Bauby’s affliction, it is at times as devastating as you’d expect it to be. However, the tone of Bauby’s story and Harwood’s script is more uplifting than depressing, servicing as a quiet triumph of the human spirit without ever devolving into simplistic, maudlin sentiment. I absolutely loved the movie, an effort of pure poetry and artistic excellent that manages to deeply connect with its audience, rather than get lost in its conceits and ambition.