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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

November 28, 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Director: Julian Schnabel
Actors: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze

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Synopsis: Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is a man coming to terms with having ‘locked-in’ syndrome.

Review: The in-built poignancy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is hard to deny, and it’s shot in a very creative, ‘arty’ way by Julian Schnabel, but it’s a film whose flaws appear progressively more prominent each time I see it.

Admittedly the opening act of the film is mesmeric as Schnabel films from the point-of-view of Jean-Dominique Bauby when he wakes from his coma and progressively discovers at exactly the same time as the viewer just how debilitating his stroke has been: he cannot move nor speak, one of his eyes has to be occluded and he ultimately learns he now suffers from ‘locked-in’ syndrome. How practical it would have been to shoot the whole film exclusively from Bauby’s gaze is up for debate but it certainly would have been bold and radical. Instead, Schnabel arbitrarily shifts the perspective for the remainder of the film, and we get a more watered-down smattering of conventional framing: outside of Bauby’s paralysed body, montages from his mind, and – most tenuously – rather demonstrative, borderline clichéd imagery depicting that most ephemeral of things – his ‘spirit’.

Also betraying the fact that some of the scenario has been configured for commercial reasons is the use of voiceover. Again, how much more austere and dark it would have been had the fact that Bauby lost his ability to speak been honoured by denying us his voice from the diegesis (almost highlighting the tragic desperation of his locked-in syndrome). Schnabel takes the understandable but more didactic decision to give Bauby a lucid voiceover that though extremely colourful and humorous, also tends to hammer home the subtext of his situation – one example being when he’s had a lovely day out at the beach with his three children before they leave him once more to the solitude of his hospital room. The silence as the children depart speaks volumes for Bauby’s aching sadness at this time, but Schnabel’s inclusion of Bauby voicing such a fact is unnecessary.

Minor criticisms aside, there are some truly spectacular elements to the film’s construct and Schnabel’s direction. Although I pick up on Schnabel’s very calculating arty eye, he is a gorgeous image-maker and some of the scenes in and around Bauby’s hospital ward and in the town of Berck-sur-Mer are beautifully rendered. It’s also a masterfully structured narrative. As referenced earlier, it begins with Bauby’s realisation of his condition, and the story from thereon bounces very organically and sensuously around various players and memories in Bauby’s life: his father, the mother of his children, his three kids, a clumsy African friend, another friend who unwittingly became a hostage when swapping an airline ticket with Bauby, and Bauby’s most recent girlfriend who took him on a portentous visit to Lourdes. (November 2013)

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