The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Full review behind the jump

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

: Julian Schnabel
: Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby
: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik
: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Marina Hands, Isaach De Bankolé, Max Von Sydow, Niels Arestrup

In elementary school I learned about both photography and the human eye by making a shoebox camera, letting light enter the dark through a single pinhole.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly merges camera with eye with pinhole, affirming beauty’s power to light up a place of unimaginable darkness and despair – the mind of a man imprisoned in his own skin. With a lead performance that re-writes the definition of an actor’s trust, and virtuoso work from one of modern cinema’s greatest cinematographers, it breathes fresh life into a very old theme about the human spirit and its capacity to overcome tragedy.

It could have been a gimmick movie, it could have been disease-of-the-week treacle. It could have stolen away its lead character’s flawed humanity in a misguided quest for maximum uplift. Instead it transcends, becomes a work of laudatory art as unique as its subject could demand of it; a marriage of sight and thought that challenges our gratitude for the freedom our bodies afford us by dramatically drawing us into the experience of someone who was robbed of that very freedom.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), called “Jean-Do” by his friends, is on the cool cutting edge of urban cynicism. Editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, he’s used to hanging out with rock stars and models and acting utterly bored by it. Offered an anything-goes contract to write a book, he’s mulling over a modern re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo, a challenge he ponders casually, like one might think about hammering together a birdhouse for the backyard. He has left the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom he never married, and is lavishing money and attention on a mistress (Marina Hands) even while he talks non-chalantly with her about breaking it off*.

But in a freakish twist of fate, this man in the seeming prime of physical health (his spiritual health is another matter) is struck down without warning or pity. He suffers a stroke, and emerges from a coma into a rare and little-understood condition called “locked-in syndrome”. His mind is as alive and active as it’s ever been, but his body is helpless, entirely paralyzed except for his left eye, which he can move and blink.

The movie throws us right in at his moment of awakening – more than half of the picture is shot from the perspective of that roving, struggling-to-focus eye. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked almost exclusively with director Steven Spielberg over the past 10 years, faces an enormous challenge in plotting a movie’s visual scheme from such a restricted vantage point. But this is intrinsic to the movie’s theme: even if this is all you have left, how beautiful it can be.

What’s extraordinary about the film, directed by painter Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), is how it subtly re-programs your brain in the act of watching. It has you transfixed by the luscious sight of a woman’s long hair, whipping in the wind. By the time Jean-Do explains that his favorite place to sit at the hospital is in front of the red-and-white lighthouse on the shore, we understand completely, and contemplate the vivid colors, the surfaces and textures, the very quality of the air. The movie even takes you into his fantasies, as he travels to faraway lands, and seduces his nurse.

He is not saintly, and Amalric’s performance of Jean-Do’s inner monologue is incalculably important. He is angry, and sad, and frustrated; all his human appetites still intact, but seemingly no hope of ever enjoying any measurable percentage of them again. But he still has a great wit and playful sense of humor, and we hear him come around to the reality of his situation, even jibe his friends in his thoughts as he watches them struggle to know how to behave around him.

His speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) develops a technique that allows him to communicate – she recites the letters of the alphabet, from most commonly-used on down, and he blinks when she reaches the right letter. His first sentence to her, and her reaction to it, is key – it shows us a movie that is sympathetic, but not too sentimental. It does not want to hide the suffering and indignity of his situation. When the camera steps outside him, and we see his limp body being bobbed in a pool by an orderly, or watch his eye dart back and forth while his children play in front of him, we think we can guess what he’s feeling, but that frozen mask of a face reminds us that we can never truly comprehend it. As an actor Amalric must put himself completely in the hands of his director, his fellow actors, and the story being told. None of the usual tricks or distractions are available to him.

Jean-Do takes that old book contract, and decides instead to write about his new life of physical imprisonment. For hours, he will blink, and the patient Claude (Anne Consigny) will transcribe, a whole day devoted to shaping a precious page or two of thoughts. Life takes on an entirely different pace – watch one scene where he confesses a truth that he knows will cause pain. The old him would have dodged, but lying takes too long now.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is constantly setting up little flashes of truth like that. They would only come across to us if the movie had thoroughly wed us to the experiences of Jean-Dominique Bauby, only if we could understand the seeming paradox: that he could be trapped in the murky, inaccessible silence of his diving bell, but how he comes to learn that inside it all he needs is a little light, and the power of his thoughts, and he is free.

(*The biographical accuracy of Jean-Dominique’s relationship with these two women, as dramatized, has been called into question. this article, which contains a few spoilers, lays out the lines of the debate.)


  • I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:03 AM  

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