Doodad Kind of Town

This Weekend at the Multiplex: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
February 3, 2008, 6:19 pm
Filed under: Mathieu Amalric

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of the Jean-Dominique Bauby memoir, finally made it to my suburban multiplex this weekend. Unfortunately, it was shown in a tiny auditorium crammed between the two larger ones where the “Hannah Montana” concert film was playing. We therefore experienced large portions of Schnabel’s film accompanied by the only slightly muffled shrieks and squeals of pre-teen girls lining up outside those adjacent theaters. In the end, it was a small matter, though. Even with this unwelcome addition to the soundtrack, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” made for powerful viewing.

Bauby, the former editor of French Elle magazine, suffered a stroke at the age of 42, rendering him paralyzed and completely unable to communicate except by blinking his left eye. His speech therapist devised a way for him to “speak” – and even narrate a memoir – she pointed to letters of the alphabet on a card, and he blinked in response to the letters he needed to build words and then sentences. The story is compelling, but not one that seems inherently cinematic. Fortunately, Schnabel (who directs from a script by Ronald Harwood), finds ways to open the story up and set it free. The opening scene is shot from Bauby’s point of view as he awakes from a three-week coma to find himself paralyzed in a hospital bed, peered at and spoken to by a succession of orderlies, nurses and doctors. It’s effectively choreographed to put us in Bauby’s place, giving us a sense of disorientation and escalating panic. As the film goes on, there are eventual shifts in the point of view, some which allow us to see the stricken Bauby in his wheelchair or being dressed or bathed; his face and body are painfully contorted, and you wonder how actor Mathieu Amalric was able to sustain this posture in extended scenes. Other scenes are flashbacks to Bauby’s former carefree and glamorous life, with Amalric looking jaunty and confident, giving us a full sense of what was lost to his illness.

Schnabel is deft at creating visual images that distill Bauby’s memories and imaginings to their purest essence. One flashback scene begins with a lingering shot of the back a woman’s head as her hair whips and tangles joyously in a breeze. That shot alone tells us everything we need to know about a happy afternoon Bobby spent with a beautiful girlfriend riding beside him in his convertible. Discreet shots from Bauby’s point of view of a woman’s dress settling above her knees as she sits down, or a pendant swinging in the V-neck of woman’s blouse, let us know that Bauby’s sexual appetites are still awake, even if he lacks the ability to act on them.

Where I wish Schnabel had been more successful is in finding similarly effective visual images to convey Bauby’s grief and sorrow; when he tells the speech therapist he wants to die, or sums up an outing with his children by saying his grief is insurmountable, we don’t get any accompanying visual sense of how powerful those emotions are.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, but doesn’t entirely feel like one. It’s straightforward and unsentimental about Bauby’s illness, with flashes of mordant humor that undercut its tragedy, and a notable lack of tear-jerking. Maybe that is true to the tone of Bauby’s book (never having read it, I can’t judge); in any case, it’s a refreshing and intelligent approach to an emotionally overwhelming subject.


3 Comments so far
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I really enjoyed this review… and the movie. I can’t imagine how annoying the shrieks of the tweens must have been… but the film is powerful enough that I’m sure you had no problem getting sucked right in. 🙂

Comment by Nayana Anthony

I have kind of avoided this film because the story reminds me of The Sea Inside (lots of ocean imagery connected with paralysis!), which I just couldn’t get through. If you saw that film, how does it compare with Schnabel’s film?I much preferred Joseph Heller’s No Laughing Matter about his battle with paralyzing Guillen-Barre Syndrome.

Comment by Marilyn

Nayana – Actually, just getting into the theatre was tough enough, the halls of the multiplex were crammed with little girls and their moms. But it was definitely worth it.Marilyn – I’ve not seen “The Sea Inside” nor read Heller’s book, so I can’t compare them. I would say the oceanic imagery in “Diving Bell…” is very minimal, limited to just a few shots of Bauby imagining himself in a diving bell as a symbol of his isolation. Ultimately, it’s a very life-affirming film. but not in any conventional way.

Comment by Pat

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