THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is the remarkable true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a successful and charismatic editor-in-chief of French Elle, who believes he is living his life to its absolute fullest when a sudden stroke leaves him in a life-altered state. While the physical challenges of Bauby’s fate leave him with little hope for the future, he begins to discover how his life’s passions, his rich memories and his newfound imagination can help him achieve a life without boundaries.
Based on Bauby’s best selling memoir of the same name, this triumphant true story inspired renowned filmmaker and visual artist Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) to create a film of unprecedented visual and emotional impact. Written by Academy Award winner Ron Harwood (2002 winner for Best Adapted Screenplay; The Pianist), the film also features the spectacular photography of two time Academy Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (1999 winner for best Cinematography; Saving Private Ryan and 1994 winner for Best Cinematography; Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan).
Director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Julian Schnabel once said that, “Art is a utilitarian thing, not a decorative thing.” His latest work is just that- a film resonating emotionality that goes beyond the entertainment of mere images flashed upon the screen of the theater and into the marrow and minds of its viewers.
Diving Bell has a very similar feel of a Michel Gondry film (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) due to its utilization of dreamlike scenes as an integral part of the narrative and the characters. However, unlike Gondry, Diving Bell is able to marry its colorful surrealism with a deeply emotional complexity that Gondry’s films have never been able to reach. Following the real life experiences of paraplegic Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film fluctuates between first-person camera perspective, his memory, and Bauby’s own imagination to visually reenact his life being completely paralyzed except for his left eye. It’s a traumatic tale that is a testament to the ability of an individual’s will to continue to exist in such drastic conditions.
However, the finest aspect of the film is its choice to never dwell on Bauby’s condition. Certainly, it is the central aspect of the story but celebratory moments of happiness and success never become the focus. Rather, the film chooses to center on the incommodious nature of memory and the outcome of all our choices that we are constantly reminded of.
The film breathes with the beeps of Bauby’s respirator and projects the frustration of a man’s inability to communicate to the exterior world. The linear narration begins to crumble as Bauby’s condition continues. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, a circle has been formed attempting to indicate that the lives of the characters do not exist on a linear plane but as a constant cycle-destined to be repeated but without exact sameness or total predictability. The nuances will always differ and The Diving Bell never fails to take notice. Ultimately, the film successfully depicts the struggle of Bauby’s existential dilemma in his present state, and his constant reflection and return to a vanished past. The end result is a film that examines all the ephemeral nature of our existence and all moments that can form the varying characteristics of whom we are.
Unlike the other major films of 2007 which examined the degeneration of humanity (No Country for Old Men, There will be Blood); Diving Bell offers hope without ever falling into cliches or overly emotional, heavy-handed sentimentality. It’s refreshing and pulled off flawlessly. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is balanced, well-acted and beautifully depicted film that leaves the viewer with a sense of affirmation that the entirety of our emotions and experiences make up exactly what is should: being.
Review by Saxon Baird