The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Details: (M), 112 mins, English
Synopsis: The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffers a stroke, leaving him entirely immobile, with his right eye the only fully functioning part of his body.
Magnificent performance from Almaric carries wonderful adaptation.
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a memoir that can’t help but make you appreciate life. Now director Julian Schnabel, working from a script by The Piano’s Ronald Harwood, has fashioned a wonderful adaptation that has precisely the same effect.
Bauby was the 43-year-old editor of French Elle living a glamorous and self-centred life until he suffered a massive stroke. When he awoke, he found himself fully conscious but paralysed and unable to speak – the victim of the rare “locked-in” syndrome. The only movement left in his body was in one eye.
After he’d conquered suicidal impulses, Bauby found some beauty and peace in his ability to reflect on his life and to dream. Most extraordinarily, he dictated his memoir using a system where he’d blink at the correct letter while one of his devoted carers recited the alphabet.
Given that The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is the first-person story of an immobile man, director Julian Schnabel has done a magnificent job. He fearlessly puts us in the hero’s head. For the first reel, we see only what he sees, with the camera tilting and blurring as Bauby is moved, prodded and suffers other indignities. It perfectly captures the fear and helplessness. Later, as memories and dreams take over, the film expands to show us Bauby’s former life – and how others now see him.
Matthieu Almaric crafts his performance from voice-over, tortured glimpses of his paralysis-ravaged face and from impossibly poignant moments pre-stroke. He’s magnificent.
While The Diving Bell And The Butterfly sounds like a total downer, it’s not because although the sadness is constant, what grows is the sense of wonder at and value of each of life’s moment. As a movie that’s deep and heavy, but light, beautiful and soaring, this rates four stars.
Avoids cliché at every turn.
Artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel is not known for his restraint; his previous cinematic forays (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) have made him seem like an American Ken Russell, revelling in self-indulgence. But this time around, confinement and restriction are of the essence.
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was a French bestseller in 1997, comprising the “bedridden travel notes” of 44-year-old former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke leading to a coma and then “locked-in syndrome”: total paralysis apart from the use of one eyelid. Incredibly, he not only learnt to “speak” again with that one eyelid – blinking to indicate letters of the alphabet – but used that agonisingly slow system to compose the book on which this film is based.
This story, extraordinary though it is, could have made for mawkishly worthy viewing. It hasn’t, partly because Bauby had an engagingly sardonic and cynical worldview, combined with a sharp turn of phrase. “Multiple deities have been enrolled,” he observes wryly, as assorted well-wishers pray for his recovery. Mathieu Amalric delivers an impressive and disquieting central performance, playing not only the stricken Bauby, but also the able-bodied “alter ego” of his memories and fantasies, as Schnabel effectively represents his (initially) blurred and distorted perspective. Max Von Sydow is typically strong as Bauby’s heartbroken father, and everyone else is fine, although the distressed ministrations of assorted family members, lovers and nurses start to merge.
This film’s limitations were inevitable, given its subject matter. But it’s deftly constructed and quite moving. And, incidentally, there are gems on the soundtrack, notably a couple of Tom Waits songs and The Velvet Underground’s instrumental version of 'Pale Blue Eyes'.
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