The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (review)

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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