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
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.)
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).
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.
Back to Home