Miramax // 2007 // 112 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // April 29th, 2008
Does that make a book?
We have a lot of sayings in our language, like "Every cloud has a silver lining" and "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." These may be appropriate to say to your friend whose goldfish just died, but these pathetic sentiments are essentially worthless. While it's important for everyone to make the best of a bad situation, when things become really dire, the ability to stay positive comes from a rare inner strength. Instead of curling up in self-pity, some people can take an extremely ugly situation and forge something beautiful out of it. For these people, life and love carry meaning that most of us will never know, and the harrowing nature of their stories help to put our petty problems into broader perspective. Such is the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle and both subject and writer of the best-selling memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
In 1995, Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric, Munich), as his friends called him, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43. He fell into a coma, in which he remained for three weeks but, when he awoke, he could no longer move. He could see, hear, and think, but couldn't speak or stand. As a result of the unexplained stroke, a particular part of his brain suffered massive trauma and afflicted him with something called Locked-In Syndrome. Trapped inside his body, Bauby had full mental acuity but could only move one eye. He was in living hell until a speech therapist came in to work on a way to communicate. With an alphabet sequenced by frequency of use, Bauby was able to blink out the words he wanted to spell. By this painstaking method, Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir of his time inside his shell and his dreams of freedom.
I'm not claustrophobic; spending enough of your childhood in a closet will rid you of that. Confinement, however, is a different fear altogether. The idea of spending a lifetime able to see but not move or speak is a nightmare. Those who live through such an ordeal, whether the condition is curable or not, have my eternal respect; that they don't go completely mad within the first few days is a feat unto itself, and I don't know that I could do the same. There are those, on top of it all, who are not only able to stay positive through the ordeal but live productive lives as well. These people are a testament to the power of will and imagination in humanity. Bauby's story is tragic but inspiring. Bauby may not take it all in stride at first, preferring instead to die (the most natural response), but he comes to accept his fate and, finally, is able to find strength in his voice. His imagination became more powerful than ever, and he created a new life for himself.
This is a difficult subject, but director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) and writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) use restraint in telling Bauby's story. They allow the man's own experience to guide the action rather than admiring his courage from afar. In doing so, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shows much of the film from Bauby's perspective, through his single working eye with limited depth perception and no peripheral vision at all. The result is a restricted viewpoint that, while disorienting, is clearly the only proper way for us to see what Bauby sees. The angles are all over the place, following his eye as it darts from one side to the other. People pass in and out of frame without warning and, because they aren't in his field of vision, we have to rely on their words without seeing their faces to relay their actions. It makes the action confusing, but aptly so.
Jean-Do's perceptions are only half the story, however. Inside this shell, his imagination takes flight and we see all his hopes and desires, his past and imagination, all beautifully photographed. Bauby is shown as the "diving bell" under the sea, able to breathe but unable to communicate and is, physically, forever underwater. Mentally, he flies. What he so eloquently blinks out for the page is gorgeously rendered onscreen. His dreams of freedom, to be the butterfly and sail away, are presented with sensitivity but without sentimentality. What could have passed for overwrought melodrama becomes a more universal dream of freedom and understanding.
Without stellar performances from the entire cast, this very difficult story could have fallen apart. Amalric does an especially good job playing both a moving and a restrained Jean-Do. He performs both equally well, with his faults displayed along with his virtues. It is a moving performance deserving of more praise than it got. Marie-Josée Croze is perfect as Bauby's speech therapist and, when they become close, his only outlet to the world. No matter how confused she is in dealing with his unique issue, she is caring and understanding and lends humanity to what sometimes seems like a hopeless cause (not to mention that she gives a great lesson in the French alphabet, her repetition of the letters is entrancing). In a tiny role, Max von Sydow (Wild Strawberries) plays Bauby's house-bound father. He is separated from much of the action but this great actor milks every shred of emotion out of a father who claims to understand what his son is going through but really has no idea.
Miramax's release of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly does justice to this fantastic film. There is a lot of fast camera movement that the transfer captures very cleanly. It is a crisp picture that aptly shows both the deep colors of the fantastical scenes and the muted tones of Bauby's real life. The surround sound is equally good. Because of the lack of visual perspective, an aural perspective is necessary and the sound comes through. Voices come from all directions doing as good a job in disorienting the viewers as letting them know where people are coming from. Julian Schnabel presents an interesting commentary on adapting the best-selling book and directing a French film without knowing the language. A making of featurette, a nicely put together photo gallery, and an interview with Charlie Rose round out the disc.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a beautiful film that turned what could easily have become sentimental junk into the heartfelt presentation of a man living between life and death. The randomness of Jean-Do's affliction is scary. While there are diseases and afflictions that can strike any day, this film doesn't try to give any explanation of why Bauby got Locked-In Syndrome or how to prevent it from happening to you. Instead, it is a celebration of life like no other. With the innovative camerawork, great performances, and sensitive direction, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the best films of 2007 with a very good DVD to match.
Jean-Do Bauby is free to explore whatever world he's in. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2008 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio commentary with Julian Schnabel
* "Submerged" The making of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
* "A Cinematic Vision" photo gallery
* Charlie Rose interview with Julian Schnabel
* Official Site