The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Review

This exquisite film overwhelmed me. I was so taken aback by its power to move and amaze that I feel unequal to the task of writing about it. So I was relieved when Clydefro Jones agreed to let me use his wonderful review of the film, one with which I am in complete agreement. I will add some comments about the UK DVD below.

Clydefro's 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

Pathe's Region 2 DVD of Julian Schabel's film is, judging from Clydefro's review, a match for the US disc with good technical specifications accompanying a list of extras which adds a trailer and photo gallery to the R1 release.

The film is transferred at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Considering the manifest problems which a film like this presents for a DVD transfer, Pathe have come up trumps. The colours are spot-on, as they need to be for a film as palpably sensuous as this. The level of detail varies depending on the requirements of the scene but is generally appropriate. One problem worth mentioning is that the subtitles are surrounded by a slight shimmer which I found distracting. There also seems to be rather a lot of grain at times although this may well be deliberate - it's hard to tell.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is admirable. The surround channels come into play frequently for dialogue and the rich music track which is made up of a plangent piano score and various snippets of songs. Fidelity is excellent throughout and the track is very clean and clear.

The package of extras includes those from the R1 disc along with a trailer and a photo gallery, both of which are pleasant additions. The least valuable feature is the commentary track because Julian Schabel seems reluctant to reveal himself and obviously needed a nudge from another participant. He occasionally comes out with something interesting but it's a very long haul. Rather better are two featurettes, one on the making of the film and another on the visuals. The former is an EPK type documentary with interviews from director and cast and the latter concentrates on comments from Schnabel and his DP Janusz Kaminski. Both of these are worth a look; one is left wanting more but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The best extra feature is a 20 minute segment from the Charlie Rose show in which the host interviews Schnabel and gets a lot out of him. I have a lot of time for Charlie Rose, although I know he's not universally popular, and as my colleague noted, the essential seriousness of his show is refreshing in an era of sound-bites.

There are 16 chapter stops. The film is subtitled in English but, regrettably, the extras are not.

My inability to write coherently about the film should be regarded as the highest compliment I can offer. At the start, with yet another use of "La Mer" as a title song, I was sceptical but after about five minutes I was totally gripped. The emotional impact of the whole is shattering and unforgettable. It's been a long time since I felt the urge to tell everyone about a film I've seen and tell them to share the experience but The Diving Bell And The Butterfly encouraged me to do just that.

10 out of 10
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