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  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Starring: Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow

Directed by: Julian Schnabel

Produced by: Jon Kilik, Kathleen Kennedy

Written by: Ronald Harwood

Distributor: Miramax Films


As seen at AFI Fest 2007:


     From the opening take of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—a long sequence from the literal point-of-view of a man who has suffered a stroke and wakes up to find himself completely paralyzed in all but his left eye—I knew that the movie would be tedious. What I didn’t expect is that it would be tedious in a good way (yes, you read that right). In fact, the film’s unrelenting, intimate depiction of protagonist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Almaric) thought-to-be-unbecoming physical condition is so tedious that it leads to a work that is maddening, triumphant, and impressionistic all at the same time. Director Julian Schnabel has made an unapologetic art film, a treasure that is as unique and visionary as it is welcome.

     Amazingly, the film is based on the life of a real man who, for a long time, worked as the editor of France's Elle magazine. Schnabel has a great deal of admiration for him, and this is very apparent in his depiction of the character. He cares enough about Jean-Dominique to stick with his point-of-view of the events for nearly the entire first act of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Schnabel does so in a way that will frustrate many viewers, and rightfully so. In a stunningly real manner that transcends being a gimmick, we observe Jean-Dominique’s emotionally-crippling determination to overcome a condition that, by conventional standards, should have completely disabled him from expressing himself. The film never pretends to promise a happy ending in the melodramatic form of its subject regaining his health—that would exploit the sad truth of the story—but it does offer a message that is ultimately uplifting.

     Realizing that he had not told his wife (who he had cheated on) and children all of the things that he had needed to during his “normal” life, Jean-Dominique soon became inspired to write a book that would vocalize all of his feelings. Due to his physical impairment, he did this in a painfully rigorous way. Jean-Dominique’s publisher provided him an assistant (Anne Consigny) to transcribe his words using a system devised by his revolutionary speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze). She would recite every letter of the alphabet in order of commonness and he would blink when the one that he wanted was said. When finished, his book was 144 pages. (The film does not mention the length for the sake of not exploiting John-Dominique’s character, but I find the fact to be so remarkable that it’s impossible for me not to mention it.)

     Through unspeakable hardship, Bauby crafted an impressionistic piece of art in his semi-autobiographical book, against all odds. Schnabel has, in turn, created an equally-impressionistic film out of his fascination for the man. In many ways, Schnabel’s vision is all over the place, but it poetically interprets Bauby’s life and its emotional, artistic, and physical plights. In addition to his implementation of experimental point-of-view shots, Schnabel captures one of the most wonderful, kaleidoscopic third-act montages ever to be committed to film: a near image-for-image recreation of the opening sequence of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The only time that his efforts fall flat is during the film’s straightforward, blasé flashbacks to previous moments in Jean-Dominique’s life, many of which involve his elderly father (Max von Sydow).

     The Diving Bell and the Butterfly may be something of a tough sell given the bleakness of the tragedy that befell Jean-Dominique. Those who do seek it out, however, will leave the theatre feeling deeply rewarded. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a poignant, beautifully-crafted motion picture.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 11.30.2007

Screened on: 11.11.2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is rated PG-13 and runs 114 minutes.

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