REVIEW: Le scaphandre et le papillon [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly] [2007]

“We are all children”

The tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby and his harrowing ordeal of being locked-in his own body after a debilitating stroke is devastating. I can’t wait to finally start reading it—it’s a bit down the queue, but has gone up a few spots after seeing the film—however, after watching the film version, I can’t help but commend director Julian Schnabel. The man is the go to guy when it comes to artistic biopics. From the magnificent portrayal of Jean-Michel Basquiat in his first foray with the media (much help from the brilliant Jeffrey Wright) and the follow-up with Javier Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance in Before Night Falls (almost unheard of for a foreign film), the true star with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not necessarily lead actor Mathieu Amalric, (who is fantastic), but instead the camera itself. About three-quarters of this film is told from the vantage point of Bauby’s one working eyeball, and it is a glorious view using gorgeously abstract framing to help tell the story that went on inside his working mind, almost hidden forever behind his limp, immovable body.

From the first moments of the movie, we are placed inside Bauby’s head as he awakens from a three-week coma. All the blurs from inactivity, strong light, and moist tears prohibit our own clear view of the proceedings. What he sees is what we see. Although one could call it a gimmick, it is the only way this story could have been told. His memoirs are about his imagination, his memories, and his thoughts while trapped in his own mind, it is not about the people around him, watching this broken man with pity and sadness. Instead of a eulogy full of sorrow, Schnabel gives us a celebration of a life; a man who realized all the mistakes he had made and would never be able to reconcile, trying to use words to say he was sorry and that he loved everyone close to him, no matter what horrible things he did otherwise. We don’t need to see his still, distorted face because we as an audience are not supposed to feel bad for him either. We have to hear his snide remarks to himself and bitterness at the start in order to really understand his mindframe and evolution into the man that finally decided to do something other than wish for the end. That was a welcome surprise here, the subtle humor brought some good laughs to help break up the solemn tone and subject matter.

Stylistically speaking, the film is profound. It is a completely visual experience, (and don’t be worried that reading subtitles will detract from looking at the scenery, it is all up there to be seen as one), with many instances that stick with you afterwards. The final sequence is probably my favorite as the faces of all his friends that came to visit and/or helped him with his recovery fade in and out, melting into each other as well as the stark whiteout caused by the bright light coming in behind them. Schnabel also does the right thing when it comes to showing the process that went into allowing this man to speak with his eye. At first we must go letter by letter with the characters learning the process and honing it to perfection, but as the film goes on, we are only told the first letter while a montage continues for the rest as the complete sentences are read back to us. It resembles a time-lapse moment with faint cuts and disjointed speech in the background and works flawlessly to help alleviate any boredom that might set in having to see the process over and over again. With that said, though, the film’s main flaw still ends up being its length. The movie feels a lot longer than it is, appearing to have multiple concluding moments only to cut back to a new sequence. While I can think of nothing that would have been ok to excise from the rest, I did feel a tad overwhelmed at times as the story kept on going.

Those lulls have everything to do with the problematic biopic necessity of showing too much to try and encapsulate a life in two hours and nothing to do with the acting whatsoever. Every performance is quite stunning. Amalric is great, although not necessarily seen on screen very often as we mostly just get to hear his voice reacting to what we are seeing. However, the moments when we see his face, in paralysis, fighting back tears, you can’t deny the performance’s success. Both women involved really shine also, full of emotion and compassion for this man that may or may not give it back. His speech therapist Henriette is superbly played by Marie-Josée Croze and the mother of his children Céline by Emmanuelle Seigner. It is through their actions and reactions that we are shown the true weight of the situation with Bauby. When Seigner has to be in the room with her love’s mistress on the phone, you can’t help but feel the pain the words spoken inflict on her. The real surprise, though, is the powerful small role of Bauby’s father played by Max von Sydow. Pushing 80 years old, Sydow shows he still has the goods to carry a scene.

While not necessarily the masterpiece I had anticipated it to be, there are few complaints to be had with this biography of a giant of a man reduced to the memories still intact in his mind. You could take any single frame from the film and create a piece of art with it, it is that beautiful to behold. Schnabel has definitely done something unique with this adaptation and it deserves all the accolades it receives. It’s just too bad that it missed out on getting a Foreign-Language film Oscar; they need to change that rule and not allow just one film per country to be entered in the race.

Le scaphandre et le papillon [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] In Julian Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Marie-Josée Croze is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s speech therapist, Henriette. Photo Credit: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] In Julian Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Max Von Sydow is Papinou (left) to Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby (right). Photo credit: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films.


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