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Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The
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by Lybarger

"When you’ve only got a brain…"
5 stars

SCREENED AT FILMFEST KC: French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby came to understand his life better after an incident where he almost lost it. In 1995, he had a stroke that paralyzed him so completely that the only muscles he could move on his own were those in his left eyelid. He died a little more than a year later. In a situation that would seem like endless despair, Bauby was able to move past self-pity, find hope and even develop a wicked sense of humor about his predicament.

Similarly, American painter-filmmaker Juilan Schnabel (“Before Night Falls”) has made an engrossing and vibrant film from Bauby’s experiences. By avoiding sentimentality, Schnabel delivers Buby’s memoir in manner the author might have wholly approved.

Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (an Oscar-winner for “The Pianist”) begin the film by immersing the viewer in Bauby’s predicament. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked on every film Steven Spielberg has directed since “Schindler’s List,” shoots the early minutes of the film almost completely from Bauby’s point of view.

This can be off-putting at first, but the approach and actor Mathieu Amalric’s wry voiceover (often taken word-for-word from the author’s original text) help make Bauby’s condition concrete. Viewers can quickly grasp his helplessness and his disorientation.

Understandably, Bauby initially feels sorry for himself and wishes he could have died from the stroke. He also feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for the way he behaved when he was able bodied.

He had rejected Céline Desmoulins (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his kids for a woman who now refuses to visit his bedside. While his stroke apparently had nothing to do with his previous lifestyle, he’s now lost the ability to atone for being a lousy common law husband and father.

One of the strengths of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is that Schnabel and Harwood refuse to sugarcoat Bauby’s condition or his flaws. He may be suffering, but he can still do contemptible things. He still pines for a woman who can’t face him in his current condition and seems insufficiently grateful for Céline’s help at his bedside.

Fortunately, a duo of dedicated therapists (Marie-Josée Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel’s wife) won’t let him dwell on his misfortune. The two teach him to communicate by blinking as they recite letters, enabling him to form words that his tongue can no longer utter.

As he gradually leans to how to communicate to the point where he can dictate a memoir to a secretary (Anne Consigny), Bauby learns how to get in touch with his memory and to let his imagination go. Schnabel and Kaminski often shoot “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” with energetic colors. They also use double exposures and other techniques to make the fantasy sequences take on an appropriately surreal quality.

Schnabel’s well-developed taste in music doesn’t hurt either. The tunes from Tom Waits and the Velvet Underground fit the action flawlessly and infuse the film with additional energy.

Schnabel also succeeds in rescuing viewers from gloom by shooting at the actual hospital where Bauby was treated. Although Bauby was forced to stare at the walls of his room for days at a time, the building is located near a gorgeous beach. Bauby was frequently wheeled out to the beach for his dictations, so he had something to see that wasn’t as cold or sterile as the facility itself.

When Schnabel visited the hospital, he became convinced that the only way he could tell the story was to filming there and to use primarily French actors. The exceptions are Lopez and Max Von Sydow, who gives a moving performance, as Bauby’s arthritic father.

Almaric ably holds a viewer’s attention despite the fact that he’s confined to an enclosed space and has a limited palate of expressions to use.

Harwood and Schnabel have thankfully retained Bauby’s sardonic wit. A therapist gets angry at some telephone technicians who wonder if the mute Bauby could only use the phone to make calls involving heavy breathing. While she’s offended, Bauby thinks the quip is hilarious.

By delivering Bauby’s story in an appropriately straightforward tone, the filmmakers behind “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” prove that engaging stories work best without artificial sweetening.

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originally posted: 10/21/07 23:08:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/06/08 Random More economical than My Left Foot. Unexpectedly wry and poetic. 4 stars
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  30-Nov-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Apr-2008



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