The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007)
Original Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow
Directed By: Julian Schnabel
Written By: Ronald Harwood
Rating: PG-13 (US) Running Time: 1 hr 42 min
From the opening credits of this autobiographical story, it’s clear this film wants you to experience the life of French Elle magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric as Jean Do) from the inside out. As we’re shown various x-rays and diagrams of the human body, which flicker in an out of focus, and cut quickly between slides of limbs, the spine and skull. A tour highlighting the immense complexity of the human body. Showing us what we can see and know, while still hiding so much from us.
Indeed, the very first shot is Jean-Do’s point of view as he wakes from a coma, and slowly realizes he’s in a hospital after suffering a stroke. Leaving his entire body paralyzed, except for his left eye. His only functional connection to the outside world, and after some training, the only way he can communicate with it too. A once vibrant successful man enjoying the prime of his life (sometimes at the expense of others), now shut out and trapped in a symbolic diving bell, sinking to the bottom of a cold dark ocean. Unable to reach anyone or call out for help.
The symbolism used in this film is simple, yet effective. It’s designed to be clear, as I suspect director Julian Schnabel didn’t want to push viewers away with overly ambiguous story telling. This is a piece of art that wants to reach as many people as possible, and not indulge a few by burying its narrative in pretentious artsy visuals. The language used to communicate with Jean-Do gets simplified, as does his view of the world, given that he has no control over which direction he’s pointed in. Giving him, and us, a chance to take in a unique view of recovery, redemption and forgiveness.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes this view of the world, and delivers a powerful story about the human spirit. It’s off-kilter and occasionally quick-moving point of view shots of Jean-Do’s surroundings are initially a little disorienting, but also can be beautiful, moving and even shocking. This technique is also important as it allows the viewer to empathize for a less than upstanding central character. Settling on a balance that doesn’t demonize Jean-Do, or play the sympathy card too often either. Delivering a true life story celebrating the tenacity of the creative mind.
IMDB has this film rated at PG-13, but I’d say a R rating is more appropriate given the film’s subject matter, and the few brief moments of nudity, sexual content and the occasional use of bad language. Those squeamish about operations near the human eye, will find one scene particularly difficult to watch!
This is a beautiful film, and a cinema screen would be the ideal venue for it. Failing that, a HD screening on a nice bit TV at home is preferable over any portable sized screen.
Best Moment: << spoiler! >>
The doctors looking after Jean-Do decide his right eye cannot be saved, so it’s sewn up. The scene is shockingly realistic! You’d almost believe they replaced an actors eye with a camera and literally sewed the eyelids around it shut. Brilliant, shocking and very moving considering how much this man had already lost after his stroke.