The last week of April brought the DVD release of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the poetic Golden Globe winner of "Best Foreign Language Film of 2007." The movie is, simply put, a very unique, challenging and rewarding picture from director Julian Schnabel.
Schnabel, easy to say, is the breadwinner of the movie, as in the wrong hands a story told mostly through the eyes (sorry, eye) of a paralyzed man who can't even speak could be an utter disaster. Instead, Diving Bell is a beautiful, well-filmed piece of work that captures the attention and develops a character we rarely see. Schnabel takes us into the mind and body of his protagonist, and makes it look easy.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about the true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) who, after suffering a serious stroke, finds himself locked within his own body, unable to move or even speak. With one eye no longer functioning, his only form of contact is through blinking. Remarkably, "Jean-Do" goes on to write an entire book with his eye.
Amalric, who will next be seen in the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, turns in a great but understated performance. Since we rarely see him for two-thirds of the movie, and when we do he is completely stationary, it's easy to overlook Amalric entirely. We hear his voice, but it's much easier to relate to the people we see on screen - specifically Henriette, who, in many ways, is the plutonic love interest of the film. Marie-Josée Croze, as Henriette, delivers a touching performance we can see; the only true emotion we get out of Jean-Do's character is of no real thanks to Amalric; Schnabel instead blurs the screen, indicating tears. Nonetheless, in hindight, Amalric establishes a convincing and likable character under the most difficult of circumstances.
While gorgeously directed, well written and well acted, the movie does lose a bit of its magic when Schnabel takes the perspective away from Jean-Do. Half of the movie is filmed entirely from the man's perspective, and then, as if fearing that this would bore the audience - or simply out of a desire to show Jean-Do's face - Schnabel begins to alternate to a third person perspective. The movie remains interesting, but not nearly as much; suddenly, Jean-Do is just another character and we are not seeing the world through his eyes. This was a bad move on Schnabel's part.
Still, Schnabel engages and intrigues the audience with what is, in reality, a very simple story of a man just living his life. For those of you who like foreign films, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the best I've seen in years.
Review by Robert Bell (B)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film that attempts to re-create the experience of paralysis onscreen. In the hands of Julian Schnabel and his canvas seeking painterly style, the film is a visual treat and features some marvelous editing that manages to maintain a coherent story despite multiple perspectives. While there is certainly a great deal of insight into the mind of a man left only with his memories and imagination, some of the stylistic excess detracts from viewer engagement, leaving an unnecessary distance between the audience and the emotional core of the film.
Diving Bell opens from behind the fluttering eyes and disoriented view of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a man who has just awoken from a coma, paralyzed form a stroke. The doctor's refer to Bauby as "locked-in", which is a very accurate assessment of his future existence.
From Jean-Dominique's perspective we meet the people in his life. There is Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children; his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) who teaches him his repetitive alphabet based communication system; Claude (Anne Consigny) the woman who takes dictation for Bauby's novel; and his friends Laurent (Isaach de Bankole) and Roussin (Niels Arestrup).
The camera eventually emerges from behind the eyes of Bauby retreating into his imagination, and reflecting on regrets, moments, and memories in his past.
This is Schnabel's third feature film in the director's chair. His previous efforts "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls" had varying degrees of success, often being criticized for being incoherent and detached. This is why it is peculiar that the most structurally sound and cohesive film to come from Schnabel is a film about a constantly fantasizing paralyzed man. The most affecting moments of the film are often from the perspective of Bauby as he views the pain and love of those around him. His internal monologue, shifting between dry wit, cynicism, and panic creates identification for the audience, helping to connect the viewer on a deeper level. Flashbacks and dream sequences are often quite engaging as well, thanks to solid direction and beautiful photography from Spielberg vet Janusz Kaminski. Where the direction falters is in the sharp shifts in perspective from dreams and flashbacks to external views of Jean-Dominique. The abrupt shifts in tone and pacing often take away from emotional engagement, essentially forcing the audience to "start over".
Performances are forced to take a back seat to the dominant visual sense of the film. Despite this, they are uniformly strong. Amalric does a wonderful job in his flashback sequences creating a carefree, somewhat self absorbed, character. It makes his inner-reflections while paralyzed that much more affecting, and his regrets that much more palatable. Seigner is particularly strong here as the ex-wife of Jean-Dominique. She stays by his side and supports him even while dealing with his love for another woman. There is a pain and unwavering love in her portrayal of this character that makes her highly identifiable. The additional supporting cast members all do fine jobs, but aren't often asked much of aside from reciting the alphabet.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a somewhat flawed film with good intentions. The direction by Julian Schnabel is both the source of success and failure in this film. Thankfully the film leans closer to the side of success, painting some beautiful and emotionally true moments, ultimately leaving a lasting impression. There are very few frames of this film that aren't filled with passion.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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