The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (review)

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We wake up when he does, out of a coma of weeks’ length, to discover that he is buried alive in his own body: He’s frozen, unable to move his body except for one eyelid. It’s absolutely horrifying, not just for the sympathy it evokes but for how director Julian Schnabel puts us so entirely in the head of stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby that you experience his horror: the camera blinks Bauby’s panic and disorientation as faces swim in and out of view, as voices burble up as if from underwater, as the nightmare reality sets in. He — we — cannot move. Schnabel eventually lets us out of Bauby’s head as the limits of his recovery are explored, but we never forget feeling as if we are at Schnabel’s small mercy — we always are, of course, forced to see a cinematic story through a filmmaker’s eyes, but this is an astonishing reminder of that, which makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as intellectually gripping as it is emotionally compelling. Based on the true story of Bauby, a French magazine editor who suffered a massive stroke in 1995 when he was only 43 and a vigorously alive and vibrant man, this is adapted from the book he laboriously wrote after his brain trauma by blinking out words, one letter at a time, with the help of a speech therapist, about, well, what he learned about the meaning of life by almost dying and having his world reduced to almost nothing. This is not, however, one of those easy or charming movies about overcoming adversity — Bauby was a complicated man, and the astonishing performance by Mathieu Amalric (he’ll appear in the new Bond movie Quantum of Solace) makes it tough to actually like Bauby. Now nominated for four Oscars — including for Janusz Kaminski’s eerie cinematography, Schnabel’s direction (the native New Yorker actually learned French so he could tell this story in its native language), and Ronald Harwood’s adapted screenplay — this truly is one of the best, most haunting films of 2007.

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Nayana Anthony
Wed, Feb 20, 2008 4:08pm

I adored Diving Bell. I sat on the edge of my seat, breathless, for most of it. I think it should have been even more recognized by the Academy. Personally, I believe Mathieu Amalric was robbed for a Best Actor nod.

Jan Willem
Jan Willem
Fri, Feb 22, 2008 3:00am

‘Haunting’ is precisely right. I saw this movie a few months ago and my thoughts keep returning to it every now and then. I found it remarkable how a film about such a heart-wrenching subject could be so funny and even naughty in places. I thought it was quite fitting that a paralysed Elle magazine editor found himself surrounded by such pretty women – again! Be prepared to shed a few tears, though.

Scott P
Scott P
Sun, Feb 24, 2008 5:50pm

What a snub from the Academy– I think Diving Bell should be up for Best Picture. Heck, it’s not even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film!

Sun, Feb 24, 2008 7:27pm

It is pretty shocking that this wasn’t nominated for best foreign language picture… except that the rules work this way: a country can submit a single film for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film, and France submitted *Persepolis.* Therefore, *Diving Bell* was not eligible for consideration in that category.

Scott P
Scott P
Tue, Feb 26, 2008 12:23am

Thank you for that info, Mary Ann.

Ironically, I just saw Persepolis today. Liked it, but didn’t love it.

While I understand it is a French film, it’s a bit strange that France would nominate an animated movie about an Iranian girl who spent her teenage years in Vienna. Maybe they thought Diving Bell would get a nomination for Best Picture; I think it deserved one.

Tue, Feb 26, 2008 9:46am

Why is it strange? At least the directors of *Persepolis* are French — one by birth, one by choice. The director of *Diving Bell* is American. Perhaps that had something to do with France’s choice.

Scott P
Scott P
Tue, Feb 26, 2008 5:45pm

Strange because when I think of Persepolis, I think of Iran. And when I think of Diving Bell, I think of France. To me, the birthplace &/or home of the director means nothing while the birthplace & heritage of the characters on the screen mean practically everything.

Maybe the French decided against Diving Bell because Schnabel is an ugly American who wears pajamas all the time. Regardless of his nationality, he sure made a remarkable, memorable French movie.

I saw an interview with Schnabel & there was talk of making the movie in English with Johnny Depp as the star. But Schnabel held firm & even learned French in order to direct the movie.

Tue, Feb 26, 2008 11:38pm

the birthplace &/or home of the director means nothing while the birthplace & heritage of the characters on the screen mean practically everything.

So you don’t think that a filmmaker’s heritage and the culture in which s/he lives have anything to do with the films s/he makes?

Scott P
Scott P
Wed, Feb 27, 2008 9:18am

To me, that means practically nothing. But then again, I’m just a simple guy who goes to the movies.

All I’m saying is that Diving Bell was about a French man…while watching it, I did not think about the American director. And Persepolis was about an Iranian girl/woman…while watching it, I did not think about the French director even though it was in French.

Here’s a hypothetical test– let’s choose 100 Americans & 100 French people watch Diving Bell. Afterwards, we’ll ask them one question– what is the nationality of the director? My guess is that only a handful would answer American.

Regarding the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, maybe the decision-makers in France chose Perspolis over Diving Bell because of the director’s heritage. If so, they did a disservice to themselves because I thought Diving Bell was a much stronger movie than Persepolis.

Wed, Feb 27, 2008 11:15am

All I’m saying is that Diving Bell was about a French man…while watching it, I did not think about the American director.

I’m sure you didn’t. What I’m saying is that if *Diving Bell* had been made by a French director, it would have been a very different film indeed.

Scott P
Scott P
Fri, Feb 29, 2008 1:32am

You’re probably right but I’m not well versed enough about moviemaking to make that kind of realization. I’m just a dumb midwestern guy barely smart enough to read the subtitles.

Diving Bell would have been a VERY different film if Johnny Depp was the star & it probably would’ve made a lot more money for all the wrong reasons.