The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Review

The word "inspiring" is used three separate times on the back of this DVD case. The problem with anointing Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) with phrases like "triumph of the human spirit" and "emotionally uplifting," as many critics and reviewers have been eager to do, is that it immediately raises a certain suspicion among those film watchers who'd like nothing less than being manipulated into tears for two hours. Yes, it's about a man who suffers a paralysing stroke in midlife to the point he can only move his left eye, remarkably authoring a book just by blinking. Sure, the viewer is captivated into considering his or her own life in the process. Cut off the trickle of potpourri-scented equine piss right there, though. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not a retread of films like My Left Foot and The Sea Inside, and it's certainly not American television movie-of-the-week junk either. Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood instead deliver an objective and, if you must, moving account of coming to terms with unpredictable truth.

In the situation of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the movie character and the real person, that reality is to go from playboy editor of Elle magazine to paralysed eye-blinker, with an offscreen coma in between. This is what most viewers will know going in and it's also how Schnabel and Harwood open the film. In and out of focus, the camera is our eye and his. Throughout, Janusz Kaminski's cinematography remains enthralling. Jean-Do, as he's familiarly called, speaks, we hear, but we also learn as he does that he's inaudible to everyone else. He has what is known as locked-in syndrome, leaving his brain fully functioning but his body almost entirely immobile. He is quite literally trapped inside himself. The intimate first-person perspective the camera takes on invites an incredible layer of compassion and immediacy, as well as defusing the inevitable tone of sombreness. We adapt to the character and get inside his thoughts. The audience sees his privileged normalcy. As the film progresses, Jean-Do misses the same things we might - women, good food, family, women. Regrets tug and expose themselves as the character flaws they are.

For roughly the first half of the movie we barely even get to see the eye. Mathieu Amalric's tonally perfect performance is accomplished in voiceover and the rare flashback. A helpful speech pathologist, Henrietta (played with a glowing humanity by Marie-Josée Croze), devises a system where Jean-Do can blink his way through conversations. She recites the alphabet, beginning with the most popular letters, and he indicates one blink for yes and two for no. An early expression of thought is his desire for death. She explodes, and later apologizes, at his selfishness. Where other filmmakers might get bogged down in exploring questions of medical ethics and patient depression, Schnabel and Harwood never make those comparatively simplistic choices. The ones they do make are far more interesting, like selecting certain memories for Jean-Do to re-live as he struggles to reconcile the choices he made in his past life as a fully functional human being.

A scene that particularly hits the audience's collective nerve, especially for male viewers, is the portrayal of Jean-Do sharing a conversation with his elderly father while he shaves his face. As Papinou, Max von Sydow has only this one scene and a phone call, but the impression is undeniable. This sequence in which Jean-Do spends time with his apartment-bound père as he slowly shaves the older man is simple, yet magical. Both characters let their guards down and bond as father and son, almost without realising it. Schnabel seems to ask when the last time you the viewer spent time in a similar fashion and whether you'd be sufficiently content should something tragic like this happen. Because there isn't a tearful breakdown moment or a light bulb of enlightenment, the audience never feels manipulated. The moment is natural, unforced, and beautiful. At one point in the film, Jean-Do narrates that there are two things not paralysed - his imagination and his memory. Whatever the latter can't placate, the former must fortify.

In gathering Jean-Do's foibles for everyone to see, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly chooses to depict an unsaintly man who isn't delivered profundity through paralysis. The focus is never on Jean-Do as a man. He isn't the person this is happening to any more than it's you or I. The incredible sense of empathy delivered is caused by the subjective nature of the film. When the character comments that his lip drool is being dabbed by his children on Father's Day, it's not a call for sympathy so much as a reminder that he has saliva to be wiped. His life remains, regardless of how few threads are left for clinging. The idea of experiencing near-death only to survive and face the barest essence of friends and family is angelic in nature. The mother of his children, Céline (played by Emmanuelle Seigner), acts as a faithful companion while Jean-Do's proclaimed love Inès refuses to visit him in his radically different state. Such an act bleeds of self-serving preservation by Inès. Yet, it's Céline who has to voice Jean-Do's message that he still waits for Inès each day. Seigner plays the scene with a combination of helplessness and quiet anger, and she's flawless.

It's a moment that seems to be of great truth, in life, not facts, and is consistent with the entirety of Schnabel's film. Jean-Do speaks to the audience in melancholy truths, revealing something deeply human with each piece. They all follow whatever harsh doctrine we're supposed to be learning. Live a better life. Minimise regrets. If we don't hardly get to the old faithful "live every day as though it were your last," you'll have to forgive the filmmakers for sparing us that slice of lemony schmaltz. They appear to be more interested in conveying the hidden arguments in favour of a life well-lived. Situated somewhere between blinking out a memoir and daydreaming about an impossible lunch date, the film highlights and underlines what it means to take advantage of our own opportunities. Those particular eccentricities do not have to necessarily include being editor at a magazine or spending time with beautiful women. Just as easily (and modestly), we might spend more time with our children or our parents. We could indulge in life's carnivorous pleasures. A vacation to some exotic locale hardly seems out of reach.

If there's anything The Diving Bell and the Butterfly accomplishes, it's to make the viewer aware that, indeed, there's more out there. There's something you haven't yet done. There's some restaurant I haven't yet enjoyed. A moment heretofore unmet. The beginning of the film taking us to a dreadful transition into paralysis must surely mean something. This, too, is a start. It's both a final descent and an opening statement. What we no longer can do we now reminisce upon favourably. The film is there to remind us of our conquests and our possibilities. The turn taken today could easily be the imaginative memory of tomorrow. Few films have managed to so affirm, so require, that the individual viewer be capable of walking and speaking and simply doing whatever task seems impossible. By honing in on the constant struggle of accomplishment, no matter the size, Schnabel and company maintain a steady focus towards capability. This is not about what we can't do, but what we can still achieve.

That journey the film takes is certainly a remarkable one. There's hardly anything perfunctory or expected in the nearly two hours we spend with Jean-Do. Colours of bright viability, quick cuts and confident edits all bring a frenetic originality that's pure Schnabel. Though the film as a whole is utterly remarkable, it's not surprising that its direction, editing, writing and cinematography were all singled out for Academy Award nominations. How all four areas could be recognised without a Best Picture nod to complete the circle is its own mystery, however. Letting that pass for the sake of being unable to change it, it's entirely understandable to encase The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in a porcelain container reserved for only the finest films of any given year. It deserves such an honour, and, more importantly, it goes well beyond the inherent limitations of its narrative. Wholly inventive filmmaking is increasingly rare in today's movie climate. This is an example of how to resist convention and improve upon cinematic formalities. Praise must be reserved for Harwood's extraordinary adaptation, but it's Schnabel's direction that sticks in the viewer's gut. What an experience this is, and hardly the expected reaction from a story seemingly hamstrung by a devastating reality and a tradition of calculated, choreographed manipulation.

The Disc

When the dual-layered R1 disc is inserted into your player, an anti-tobacco ad (0:36) quickly starts up and is followed by a trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2:41). After watching or advancing past these little inconveniences, an exquisite menu for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is revealed.

The film is presented in an aspect ratio about halfway between 1.78:1 and 1.85:1. The digital transfer is progressive. Because the film is filled with unorthodox quirks like frequently being out of focus and seemingly having intentional grain at times, it's difficult to hold the image quality up against the average major studio release. There are several instances where some light dirt is noticeable (and I'm not referring to the stock footage that's used), but I can't be certain whether this is meant to intentionally be a little grimy or if it's possibly caused by something inherent in the filming process. Much of the movie looks excellent, notably the flashback scenes, so I'm inclined to give Buena Vista the benefit of the doubt here. Certainly every other review I've read of this DVD has praised the video quality. As such, those looking to see how this release rates in terms of image should probably be prepared for some dirt specks here and there, but otherwise the picture looks excellent. Colours are well-balanced and detail is capable of being top quality when in focus.

The film's soundtrack is an evocative mix of popular music and an affecting, piano-heavy score. These come through with total clarity and richness, but audio is otherwise mostly limited to low sound effects and dialogue. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is the preferred audio option, but English and Spanish language varieties are also included. Golden yellow subtitles, both for the film and all supplements, are optional and available in English, English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish. Strangely, the shade is definitely more pale in the clips shown during the Charlie Rose interview. The brightness of the existing subtitle colour, despite being common, is somewhat distracting and unattractive.

It's nice to at least feel secure (regardless of whether it proves true) that a new release of a well-praised film is getting its one and only DVD. There are enough supplements here to seemingly prevent the studio's attempt at a second bite in the foreseeable future. The bonus material consists of a pair of featurettes, an interview with Julian Schnabel from Charlie Rose's television show, and an audio commentary with the director. "Submerged: The Making of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (12:40) is a standard, but reasonably good behind the scenes look at the film and features interviews with Schnabel and several cast members. "A Cinematic Vision" (7:14) touches on a few additional production insights, specifically letting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and Schnabel discuss their methods in achieving some of the extraordinary camera shots and angles.

More interesting is the Charlie Rose interview (20:44), which was taped in November of 2007, just prior to the movie's U.S. release. Regardless of your feelings about Rose's interviewing skills, his show is always a good place to hear creative folks speak in sentences and paragraphs instead of soundbites. The American theatrical trailer, which is otherwise absent from the DVD, can be seen in full during this segment, but it seems to betray the accomplishment of the film. Schnabel was again on Rose's programme in January of this year, for the full hour, but only the earlier appearance is included here. Even so, the twenty minutes we spend with the director is arguably as useful as the entirety of his commentary.

Schnabel speaks in a subdued and deliberate cadence on the track. He doesn't say a lot, but I did find what he shared to be worthwhile. There are tidbits scattered within the commentary that may add to one's appreciation of the film. Of note, he speaks about using many of the actual locations from the real-life events, including the same hospital, terrace, and book publishing office. The other thing that struck me while listening to Schnabel was a comment about his hesitation to demystify what we see on screen. This really goes out the window when you go through every facet of the DVD because we do hear about the differences in the screen version and what actually happened, and we learn how the filmmakers accomplished all their little tricks to deliver a first-person perspective for the viewer. Greatly dependent on individual views, but the "added value" of DVD supplements sometimes has hidden artistic costs, I think.

As for the packaging, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is housed in a slipcover and a one-sheet chapter insert is located inside the case.

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