Friday, December 14, 2007


Picking your own body's lock

By Edward Copeland
At first, the images are quite jarring, the out-of-focus pictures dizzying. For those who don't know the story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it tells the true tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine who suffered an incapacitating stroke at the age of 42. Before the health crisis, Bauby had planned to write a modern version of The Count of Monte Cristo, though he later decides that you shouldn't mess with a masterpiece. That's the way I feel about Julian Schnabel's film about Bauby.

Mathieu Almaric stars as Bauby, and while the film itself has been garnering deserved praise, I think his contribution has been undervalued. Except for a few flashbacks, Almaric's performance nearly is all voiceover, commenting on his situation to people who can't hear his voice.

Physically, Almaric is as restricted as Bauby was, spending most of the film essentially immobile except for the blink of an eye (and often looking foolish beneath an Elmer Fudd-type rabbit-fur hunting cap that a friend places on his head. The real-life Bauby feels as anyone in his situation could be expected to feel when he finds he's a victim of "locked-in syndrome," still there but unable to converse with the outside world about matters as important as children or as mundane as annoying flies.

Schnabel's filmmaking approach perfectly mirrors what the view from inside Bauby might have been like. It takes some getting used to, but once Bauby decides to abandon self-pity, the film tosses away its initial gimmick as well.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sounds as if it could be a very depressing film, but nothing could be further from the proof. It entertains as you join the cynical Bauby within his virtual cocoon and it's inspiring when he decides to write a book when the only way he can is by blinking, one letter at a time, to devoted nurses and friends who translate for him. Bauby realized that no matter what the state of your physical body is, your memories and your imagination cannot be paralyzed.

The performers are good across the board, especially in a great and awkward scene where Bauby's common-law wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children, is forced to translate a phone call for the woman whom the pre-stroke Bauby had left her for. Max von Sydow also has a couple of nice scenes as Bauby's decrepit father, trapped in a prison of a different kind.

The screenplay itself is a bit of a translation, Ronald Harwood having written an English-language adaptation of Bauby's book which was then translated back into French.

I had not been a fan of either of Schnabel's previous films, Basquiat or Before Night Falls, but with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel has made one outstanding film, even if he never makes another one. This film should not be missed.

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Films like this reek of a depressing movie experience. Most people, critic or otherwise, would rather spend two hours in an uplifted state. But, as you report here, "Diving Bell" isn't depressing. It's invigorating, both with its visual presentation and with our protagonist's inner monologue.
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