Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Director – Julian Schnabel

Writer – Ronald Harwood

Starring – Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Cosigny

Review:

There was a lot of potential for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to be manipulative and emotion-grabbing. To say that it isn’t those things and is instead a thoroughly moving, extremely powerful and genuinely compelling film would be a huge understatement.

The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a successful magazine editor who one day randomly suffers a massive stroke leaving him paralyzed from head to toe with the exception of his left eye.

Of the many positive attributes that The Diving Bell has, perhaps the most admirable is the way in which most of the film is shot. The film opens literally by the opening of Jean-Dominique’s eye and we proceed, for the first 20 minutes or so anyway, to see everything from exactly his point of view. Without the privilege of a full view of everything going around us we are forced into the character’s realism, as audience members we are literally trapped inside this man’s body with his eye being the only point of perspective. It sounds terribly annoying but from moment one it soon becomes clear that this is an innovative, original and absorbing way to tell this story.

Although we are only able to see out of one eye-view and right in front of us, thankfully the protagonist’s doctors come in from time to time and put him in a wheelchair which allows us more to see. Amalric gives narration throughout most of the film but as his paralyzed body lies in his hospital bed or gets moved out for some fresh air he will describe his feelings and what he is thinking at any given moment. This ranges from thoughts of loneliness and sadness to happy memories and even some light humour. It is the latter that stops the film from being very depressing and instead it has an undercurrent of humour and a general “look on the bright side of things” kind of attitude.

After the first part of the film is over, where we see everything from the point of view of Jean-Dominique, the film transforms into more standard, third-person shots. Every so often we will be put back into the shoes of Bauby but for the most part, from then on we get to see things in a very full and familiar way. Frustration is a vital emotion for the audience to feel when watching this film. It’s one of the few times where I can actually say frustration was welcome, as it gives us a chance to feel the same as what the character is. After the initial frustration of only seeing through one eye we then have to go through the ordeal of trying to communicate. Since the character can’t speak the speech-therapist has devised a technique where she holds up a card with letters on it and as she speak the letters out loud Bauby will blink every time she says a letter he wants to say so that he can form words and sentences. She will say a letter then; BLINK. Another letter then; BLINK. Then the process again; E, A, S, R, L, D, N, BLINK. We are forced throughout the film to endure this almost torturous technique of communication, although we may not be in the character’s head anymore we are none the less forced to feel the frustration and annoyance that he is feeling.

If you met Jean-Dominique in his pre-paralyzed state on the street; a smug, self-loving and sometimes pompous person may not be the most enjoyable to be around. But not surprisingly the situation that he becomes a part of and the state he’s in helps us to sympathize and empathize with him not only in his affected state but in his normal one as well. Simply for the fact that we know where and how he will end up. This could have easily been done in a very sappy, manipulative way but director Julian Schnabel and writer Ronal Harwood handle the film in such a way that everything rings true, including the performances and the events that take place and it assures us that the emotions we are feeling throughout are well deserved and not forced.

The performance of Mathieu Amalric could be seen in two lights; either that it is brilliant for its realism, believability and raw power or that it’s a role that simply anyone could have played. I am leaning far more to the former as I suspect the actor really believed in the role and gave it his all as opposed to “just doing it for the awards”.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a fresh and unique look (pardon the pun) at the clichéd overcoming adversity tale. It takes a sad and quite depressing story and reshapes it into a strangely up-beat and multi-layered look at one man’s extraordinary tale. It’s not without its little weaknesses here and there, including a sense of the film being dragged out just a tad at stages, but they are strongly overshadowed by everything coming from the positive side of the fence. Moving, compelling, original and fascinating in almost every way, The Diving Bell packs a subtle but very powerful emotional punch.

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