- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Bob Westal
n 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a high living but apparently healthy 43-year-old editor at French “Elle,” suffered a massive and completely unexpected stroke. The result was what most of us would imagine to be a fate worse than death: a mercifully rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome,” in which the still fully functional brain is all but cut off from the body, resulting in near complete paralysis combined with unimpaired consciousness. In Bauby’s case, the only body motion he was allowed was some movement of his tongue, and the only means of communication was to blink one of his eyes. (The other had to be sewn shut.) Nevertheless, by blinking as one of his extremely patient helpers went through the alphabet, composing sentences one letter at a time, Bauby was somehow able to write an acclaimed bestseller about his life. “The diving bell” was his body and “the butterfly” was his spirit.
Adapted by English playwright Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”), the second award winning, Oscar nominated, and critically acclaimed foreign language film from New York bred painter-turned-movie director Julian Schnabel, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is, for starters, probably the most successful film to make extensive use of what’s sometimes called “first person cinema” — with the other actors relating directly to the camera and putting the audience in the cinematic shoes of the main character. This technique is often used for brief sections of films — and as viewers of “Police Squad” know, it’s an ancient and potentially comical cliché in the opening of murder mysteries. Usually, it feels forced if extended for more than a few minutes. (Director and star Robert Montgomery shot 1947’s “The Lady in the Lake” entirely from the point of view of its private eye hero; it would have been a lot better if Montgomery had shot it traditionally.)
Nevertheless, almost the entire first half of “The Diving Bell” is first person and, much to director Schnabel’s credit, it works, maybe almost too well — no one wants to be “locked in” for any length of time. Still, it’s more than bearable thanks to brief flashbacks and a certain amount of wry humor from the improvised internal commentary of star Mathieu Amalric — who we barely see for the first half of the film. Also, the sheer beauty of the imagery is crucial. Schnabel and world class cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s director of photography on every film since 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” employ an unusually rich and deep color palette and plenty of joyfully sensual imagery. Its vitality makes us understand the anger of Bauby’s therapist when he wishes for death. Even when viewed through a single eye, life is quite a gift to be throwing away.
Even so, Schnabel is too shrewd a director to keep the device going forever and, at a crucial emotional turning point about half-way through the film, we go to a more conventional style and the film provides a series of painful but life-affirming, and mostly unsentimental, pay-offs. And the imagery, freed from the constricting demands of first-person filmmaking, becomes as free as any butterfly.
Still, movies are a lot more than a bunch of pictures, no matter how ravishing, and the strong cast is key here, especially the three women who dominate Bauby’s life. Considering her character has been dumped in the wake of an affair, Emmanuelle Seigner delivers an appropriately ambiguous performance as Bauby’s ex-wife and the mother of his three beloved children. As his pretty and compassionate therapists — and “Diving Bell” is clearly the best advertisement for French healthcare since “Sicko” — both Anne Consigny and especially Marie-Josée Croze do sincere, first-rate work. I hate to say it, but she’s beautiful when she becomes angry at the suicidal writer.
Replacing the originally cast Johnny Depp, star Mathieu Amalric delivers the expected disabled-person tour de force performance under the most extreme limitation possible, since he is forced to remain in an almost rigor-mortis-like state with the exception of one eye — the “Diving Bell” could have been accurately re-titled “My Right Eyeball.” He is allowed a little more freedom, of course, during the flashback sequences and Amalric delivers an accurate, understated performance there as well. The tension the audience feels in these scenes is maximized, particularly in the climactic flashback detailing the stroke, even as we understand that Bauby is simply going through his life in an ordinary way, unaware that the shadow of death is around every corner.
And life and death as two sides of the same coin is ultimately the subject here. In two crucial scenes, Max von Sydow, who 50 years ago played cinema’s most famous chess game ever against the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” appears as Bauby’s aged father, who ultimately suffers the cruel fate of having to deal with the fact that his only child has been so severely stricken. It is a wry and deeply emotional performance and Sydow, best known to American audiences for playing heavies in movies like “Minority Report,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and even “Rush Hour 3,” proves why this gaunt, minimalist character actor shows that he is also the best person on earth to play an ordinary, loving father.
Though Ron Harwood’s solid screenplay deserves some credit, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is ultimately very much director Julian Schnabel’s show. Once again the American artist triumphs while making an American co-financed film in a foreign tongue. (His last production was the similarly award-winning Spanish-language biopic, “Before Night Falls,” which turned Spaniard Javier Bardem into an international star.) Schnabel clearly has a strong personal stake in this difficult but universal material, and does so in a comforting but never sugarcoated manner.
Ultimately, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a film about acknowledging the joy of life while also being able to let go of it. I’m not quite sure that, as director Schnabel has bragged, he’s made a Buddhist film — but it’s as close to it as I’ve seen in some time.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
This technically superb DVD has pretty much the standard assortment of extras. Two interesting promotional video shorts delve into the background and making of the film, and there’s more of that during a 20-minute interview with Charlie Rose, where we learn that Julian Schnabel and Rose are buddies. I’m no fan of the self-important PBS host, and a holder of certain stereotypes about world famous artists, but I have to admit I didn’t find this as obnoxious as I might have; there are enough interesting and even mildly touching revelations that make the segment worth your time. That is more than I can say for Schnabel’s commentary in which the apparently dog-tired director makes occasional remarks between long, long silences — if you last longer than a few minutes into it, you’re a better film geek than I.