Based on a true story, and the highly lauded book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the emotional tale of the successful and charismatic editor-in-chief of French Elle (Mathieu Amalric), who suffers a sudden stroke that leaves him in a life-altered state. Beset by physical challenges and left with little hope for a normal future, he discovers escape in memories and a rekindled imagination, and works to write an improbable memoir by literally blinking out words and phrases using his one good remaining eye.
Scripted by Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Piano, and directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), this film is the very definition of a tough commercial sell (ergo its unfortunate domestic washout, at $6 million earned, for distributor Miramax), but it’s still an amazingly evocative
and rather subtly moving portrait of a castaway soul. It’s a movie that
highlights and plays up elements of shared humanity rather than just
differences, or what’s been robbed and taken away from Jean-Dominique. The first 12 to 15
minutes or so are a fascinating exercise in subjectivity, told from his
warped point-of-view; particularly squirmingly effective and amazing is a scene in which
Jean-Dominique gets one of his eyes stitched shut, to ward off sepsis.
While it works on this base level as a cautionary dramatic cow-prod — encouraging one to “seize the day,” and all that — the work here from all the actors, as well as the movie’s construction, is on an elevated plane. This is where The Diving Bell and the Butterfly really gets into your head and heart, something I discovered on a second viewing of the movie. Justly nominated for four Academy Awards, it taps into the infrequently pondered essence of human consciousness, and what it means to be alive, separate from any bodily implications.
As Jean-Dominique struggles with speech and physical rehabilitation therapy, administered by Henriette (Marie-Joseé Croze, above) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel’s wife), he also is forced to try to forge reconnections with his recently divorced wife, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner, Roman Polanski’s wife), and his father (Max Von Sydow), an irascible shut-in grappling with his own fear of mortality. The scenes with Celine are especially fraught with tension, since he has left her, the mother of his children, for another woman — a woman whom he has to admit to her that waits for every day in the hospital. By not deifying Jean-Dominique — by presenting him as “just” a man, with all the complications and interpersonal entanglements that includes — the movie achieves a much deeper emotional resonance than it would if it made more obvious plays for sympathy.
Housed in a regular Amray case with an accompanying cardboard slipcover, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly comes presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions. English, French and Spanish language tracks are available in Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound, and optional subtitles are available in all three languages as well. A
12-minute making-of featurette includes interviews with all the
principal on-screen and off-screen players, and of particular anecdotal
interest is the fact that Almaric reveals he used a razor with a real
blade in a scene in which he shaves von Sydow, so as to concentrate and make real his fear, and drain his character of any other visible expression or thought. Writer Harwood is credited with the creative breakthrough of setting the story firmly from Bauby’s perspective, a choice that producer Jon Kilik admits makes the beginning of the movie a somewhat panic-inducing experience for many audiences. Schnabel also talks candidly about making the movie for his father, who he says was afraid to die. A separate, seven-minute featurette focuses on both the creative decisions that informed Janusz Kaminski’s award-winning cinematography, and the nuts-and-bolts effects that achieved the look, from a special swivel-and-tilt lens and latex piece, to low-fi solutions like
There are also two more rewarding special features with Schnabel. The first is a feature-length audio commentary track in which the filmmaker shares production anecdotes and, more rewardingly, talks grand-strokes themes. The second bit is a 20-minute appearance on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show, in which Schnabel quotes liberally and movingly from Bauby’s source text, in which he says that his life was “moments of joy I let drift away, a race whose outcome I knew beforehand, but didn’t bet on winning.” A true artist in every sense of the word, Schnabel’s prints are all over The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and this disc gives full, beautiful voice to the scope and detail of his work, without shortchanging his collaborators. One could nitpick and hope for longer interviews (more, more, more!) with the cast, all of whom have interesting things to say, but the truth is this is solid DVD rendering of a beautiful film. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. A (Movie) B+ (Disc)