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Beautiful Inner Visions

  • May 2, 2008
Life is filled with contingencies. We worry about them; they creep up on us; they challenge us and shape us. How people adapt to tragedy, however, can be a source of fascination and inspiration. One of the best things a film can do is to get us into others' shoes and show how their inner journey unfolds for them.

Such is the case of `The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' based on the autobiographical account of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric), the editor for Frances' prestigious 'Elle' magazine. His account is one of adaptation. From a glamorous and prosperous playboy with a family, including, Ce'line (Emmannelle Se'igner) his long-suffering partner and mother of his three children, this jet-setter seemed to have everything going for him.

From the beginning of Julian Schnabel's directorial masterpiece we find our protagonist awakening in fits and blurs, discovering a brightly lit hospital room where he is gazed upon by doctors, nurses, and other personnel. We can tell he is disoriented, but we know his thoughts as they are narrated during the opening scenes. We quickly discover that he cannot speak, for he learns that his thoughts are not being received by anyone, yet he can hear what they're saying. Soon we have a serious meeting with a doctor who informs him that he has had a stroke and is paralyzed. The repercussions come quickly as he becomes dependent on people who bathe him and his choices seemingly diminish. We feel his discomfort as a fly sits upon his nose with no self-recourse and an attendant comes into his room to turn off a thoroughly absorbing game of soccer on TV. More unsettling is an early scene where fully conscious he watches a specialist sew stitches closing his right eye.

Soon Ce'line comes to visit, and he daily gets a therapist, Henrietta (Marie Jose' Croze) who teaches him to communicate, blinking once for "oui" and twice for "non" with his good left eye. For anyone this new life would be difficult, but for someone so independent in his chic life, it must have been excruciating. Using the blinking method, Bauby can choose the letters he wishes to convey as Henrietta dictates them close to his bed. Asking him what he wants, he chooses to let her spell out "D-E-A-T-H". Volumes of emotion are written on these wonderful actresses' faces as they convey their discomfort with Jean-Dominique. His lover is ambivalent. Certainly sympathetic about her lover's new condition, she also ponders the scars of disinterest that have marred her own life.

But like many tragedies, adjustment makes life better. Unable to have the mobility, Jean-Dominique learns to rely more on memories and imagination as his chief resources to make life meaningful and enriching. We see some truly poignant moments with his father (here played in a welcome performance by Max Von Sydow), whom he comforts by shaving. We also see flashbacks to times with his own family and times with his lover, including some ironic scenes when he went with her to Lourdes when he wasn`t seeking miracles in his own life.

Watching this film, I was reminded in a casual way of Fellini's `8 ½' where the flight of imagination is captured so concretely. His visions are captured beautifully by Schnabel and art director, Janusz Kaminski, who give us a visual feast of Bauby's memories and imagination. After 112 minutes I felt I had gone on the same journey, able to capture and understand a man whose life was a smorgasbord of sensual endeavors cut short by an inconvenient reality that had him rely on his inner resources to find meaning and solace when he was used to gathering it himself from the physical world. From being submerged and confined (as a diving bell), his imagination takes beauty and flight (the butterfly). In the end, 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is a beautiful true story told from a convincing point-of-view.

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December 31, 2010
Interesting review, JP! Thanks!
More The Diving Bell and the Butter... reviews
review by . December 31, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****      "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a beautiful film, and there is virtually no other way to describe it. Never has a modern biopic depicted such a potent mix of emotions, humor, and humanity. Julian Schnabel's film must be something truly special in order to do what it does so wonderfully. It is a film which I could recommend to just about anyone with their humanity in-tact. The genius of the film is that without reading the memoir of the …
review by . January 09, 2009
Tragic and beautiful, Diving Bell takes you on an unrestricted journey of dreams and memories. Tom Waits song as the credits roll couldn't be more perfectly placed. Rewatch Factor: 4 and 1/2 Stars
review by . May 01, 2008
Julian Schnabel, well accepted as one of the important visual artists of our time, continues to impress with his small but elite group of films, proving that paintings and cinema are closely related as a means to reach the psyche. In 'Le Scaphandre et le papillon' ('The Diving Bell and the Butterfly') he has transformed the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby (with the sensitive screen adaptation by Ronald Harwood) into an experience for the mind and the heart. It is an extraordinary blend of visual …
About the reviewer
John L. Peterson ()
Ranked #99
I am a substitute teacher who enjoysonline reviewing. Skiing is my favorite pastime; weight training and health are my obsessions;and music and movies feed my psyche. Books are a treasure and a pleasure … more
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The seemingly claustrophobic story of a man imprisoned in his paralyzed body becomes a dazzling and expansive movie about love, imagination, and the will to live. After a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric,Kings and Queen) can only move his left eye--and through that eye he learns to communicate, one letter at a time. With the help of his speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze,Munich) and a stenographer (Anne Consigny,Anna M.), Bauby writes the stunning memoirThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But such a plot summary makes the movie sound like lofty, self-important medicine--far from it. Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat,Before Night Falls), working from an elegant screenplay by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and with an oustanding cast (which also includesFrantic'sEmmanuelle Seigner as Bauby's neglected wife), has created a movie as engrossing and hypnotic as a thriller, a movie that wrestles with mortality yet has stubborn streaks of dark humor and eroticism, that portrays a man who overcomes unimaginable obstacles but refuses to paint him as a saint. Schnabel was once dismissed as a pompous and overblown painter, but he's crafted an intimate visual poem, a humble sonata about life at its most fragile.--Bret Fetzer
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