The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

UK release date: 8 February 2008

cast list

Mathieu Amalric
Emmanuelle Seigner
Marie-Josee Croze
Anne Consigny
Max von Sydow

directed by
Julian Schnabel
The French do love their existentialism and their ennui, dont they? And, for some reason, nobody does it better than them. Perhaps it is the ubiquitous loucheness in their films, that sense in which they have gone to the edge of morality and now find ordinary life rather tired, chri, that makes them so compelling. And The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is certainly that.

Yet this archetypal French film is directed by one of the least prolific filmmakers Texas has ever produced Julian Schnabel with a screenplay written by a South African migr to Britain. Maybe it is this fusion of particularities to make one universal story that gives this story its enormous series of punches and, perhaps, also indicates that melancholy and pessimism, once so gloriously Gallic, is now part of the international language of culture.

The film is a biopic of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who, at the age of 43, was almost totally paralysed by a massive stroke. This left him in a condition termed locked-in syndrome where the only remaining physical ability left to him was an ability to move his left eye, while all his mental faculties remained absolutely intact. Shipped off from Paris to an ex-naval hospital on the Normandy coast specialising in the rehabilitation of those afflicted with the condition, he was taught to communicate using this one good eye and, so equipped, he began a trip down memory lane that became his eponymous memoir and the backbone of this film.

Filmed almost entirely from the point of view Bauby, the movie is at turns claustrophobic and distressing. We are transported into a world of a man who, as if inside a diving bell, is entirely dependent on others for his continued existence, and whose body is reduced to an inflexible suit he is forced to wear, the real human now trapped inside, as if in a glass tomb. The camera gives us Baubys perspective from the very first frame, as he wakes from his coma, and this marvel of first-person storytelling sees cinema encroach on the territory of the novel more consistently than at any point in its history.

The tragedy of Baubys situation is continuously reinforced by his interior monologue, heard in voiceover, fuming sarcastically at how he is being treated like a child, unable to keep his eye on his therapists faces as he checks out their cleavage and barking silently as an indifferent nurse turns off a football match he is watching. The lightness, without which the film would be relentlessly depressing, itself has a double-edge, as his very human responses underline his dehumanisation. This gives the movie an incredible power, though with the downside that you actually learn little about the main character except that hes quite a lot like the rest of us.

As a technical feat, the sense of really being trapped inside a characters skin is overwhelming at times and brilliantly done. However, there is a sense in which this also reduces the film (if reduce is the correct word it is still a monumental piece of film-making) to something akin to a tragic first-person video game, one where the hand on the joystick does nothing at all. Maybe, with the rise of voyeurism as entertainment, this is the next big leap for story-telling.

With heartbreaking performances from Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and a devastating cameo from Max von Sydow as Baubys father, this is a film which connects effortlessly with our current cultural obsession with death and incapacitating illness. It reminded me a little of the Dutch documentary Death on Request about the man who opted for assisted suicide and was filmed at the moment of his death the grim voyeurism is all there, albeit with the unique perspective of us actually having a chance to inhabit the main protagonists body 75% of the time. This of course leaves little for Mathieu Almaric as Bauby to do except provide a voiceover and look weepy out of his one good eye at crucial moments (which, to be fair, he does terribly well).

Groundbreaking in many ways, I would like to think that we can leave the genre of camera as character there for a while. I fear it may inspire some less sparkling attempts at putting us in the heart of the action and allow technical marvelry to overtake the story. Im also not sure that I want to be placed inside someones body so brilliantly again the eerie feeling is still taking a while to wear off. This harrowing movie may well leave you speechless too.

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