The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Day 65)
My Opinion: 9.5 || I don’t think I can provide a commentary that will do the movie justice (though I’ll try). It’s perfect.
TITLE: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel
LANGUAGE: French | COUNTRY: France
PROFILE: Drama | 112 minutes | IMDb (8.1)
SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): Mathieu Amalric stars as author and Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in this adaptation of Bauby’s autobiography, which he dictated by blinking his left eye after a stroke rendered him mute and paralyzed.
Strengths: The movie starts off boldly by showing Bauby’s point of view as he wakes from a coma, completely immobile but for his eyes (one of which isn’t even working properly). It’s a long, disorienting sequence, and never has point-of-view been used more effectively. Throughout the film, Bauby’s angles become our angles: what he can see, we see; what blocks his vision, blocks ours. It’s the most compelling representation of subjective reality I’ve ever seen.
The story itself is simple, but the narrative structure is elegant. Critically, the film doesn’t sentimentalize Bauby or ignore his flaws, and this honesty only deepens our identification with his humanity and pain over what he can’t regain. I can’t emphasize enough, though, how not-depressing the movie is. Not only does it shun tearjerker conventions, it also avoids the dreariness, preaching, and trite uplift that can plague stories of this type. (There’s a good comparison to be made with another very fine movie about severe disability, The Sessions. There, as here, the focus is not enduring anguish but on grasping humanity.)
Weaknesses: There are very, very few films that I consider flawless and perfectly realized. This goes on that list.
For the sake of argument, you could make a case against ever showing Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) in the flashback sequences, which are meant (as I take it) to represent his memory. All memory is point-of-view: we never get to see ourselves as others do. So, it’s interesting to imagine an alternate version of the film that never violates Bauby’s point of view — where we never see him except in reflections or pictures. By maintaining a 1:1 identification with Bauby’s condition, that alternate film might convey his experience with even greater intensity.
That’s merely a thought experiment, though, not a criticism. The film that actually exists makes an unimpeachable case for the narrative value of providing glimpses of the man who once was — and the man who now is. And all stories manipulate time and perspective — it’s essential to the enterprise. The question faced by every artist, then, is not whether to manipulate, but how to manipulate most honestly. At every point, Schabel answers that question impeccably.
Best Moments: Several moments to highlight (semi-spoilers):
There’s a scene toward the beginning when Bauby’s therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) is helping him to spell out a message and realizes that he’s requesting death. Her angry reaction — viewed from Bauby’s restricted, off-kilter perspective — is bracing and emotionally authentic.
Another early scene features a visit from a friend who spent years as a hostage in Beruit, and the comparison between their experiences is excellent. His admonition to “hold on to the human inside” expresses a vital theme.
In the second half of the film, Bauby receives a phone call from his housebound father. It’s a lump-in-the-throat sequence, and Max Von Sydow (what a career) couldn’t be better.
Later, in the movie’s most emotionally complex moment, Bauby’s ex-wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) has to “translate” his part of a phone conversation with the mistress he left her for. Painful and beautiful on multiple levels.
And there’s the conclusion, which Schnabel delivers with lovely restraint, and which left me staring at the ceiling for a long time.