The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was released to worldwide acclaim a couple of years ago and was nominated for dozens of awards around the globe, including an Oscar in the Best Director category for Julian Schnabel. Visits to review websites Rottentomatoes.com and Metacritic.com reveal a 93% and 92% positive review rating, respectively. I usually take reviews with a grain of salt, but based on the overwhelming love granted to this film I’d had it on my mental “to see” list for quite some time.
The plot is certainly compelling. It’s based on the real life memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of French fashion magazine Elle. A stroke at the age of 42 leaves him almost completely paralyzed with a rare condition known as locked-in syndrome. The patient remains fully aware, awake, and in control of their mental faculties but can only communicate via the eyes. In Bauby’s case he can communicate only through the blinking of his left eye…the right eye has no function for him and in a particularly difficult scene to watch we see a doctor sew it up to prevent possible infection. This is seen from Bauby’s perspective as is most of the first third of the movie, an effective device in conveying the limited scope with which he now views the world. An inner monologue that only the audience and Bauby can hear takes us further inside the prison he inhabits, occasionally represented onscreen as being trapped inside the diving bell of the title. As the movie progresses he learns to cope with the new challenges and flashbacks to warm memories before the accident, as well as fantasies of what he wished he could do begin to creep in and the claustrophobic first person perspective gives way to a more conventional and rounded on-screen view.
Before his stroke Bauby had a book deal to write a feminine version of The Count Of Monte Cristo. Afterwards he instead decides to write his memoir in an effort to maintain his sanity as well as prove to friends, family and former co-workers that he is more than some helpless vegetable. A tedious and time-consuming process then begins as he “dictates” his words through only the blinking of his left eye, coordinated with a recitation of the alphabet by an assistant. The numerous scenes where this occur, along with the initial earlier scenes where therapists develop and perfect this technique with him, tend to slow the movie down considerably yet it’s obviously difficult to criticize this as it’s a key element to the film as the central figure strives to have his “voice” heard. Additional storylines involving Bauby’s elderly father (Max Von Sydow) who is so frail he is unable to leave his apartment and a former colleague of the editor who was held hostage for four years in Beirut would seem like lazy and convenient plot devices to show other ways people can become trapped in life…if they weren’t actually true.
I had only seen lead actor Mathieu Amalric in two previous roles – Munich and in the most recent Bond movie (Quantum Of Solace), where he was perhaps the least intimidating Bond villain ever. He does a good job in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, giving a moving performance and conveying a range of emotions through essentially just his voice and extremely limited facial expressions. The cast is rounded out by a trio of beautiful French actresses in Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Anne Consigny.
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is worth a viewing but be prepared for a slow, depressing movie.