THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

Strenuously overdirected (to cover a want of imagination and humanity), Julian Schnabel’s La scaphandre et le papillon surveys the reality and fantasies/dreams of an actual person, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the fashion magazine Elle, whose 1995 massive stroke left him in “locked-in syndrome.” Only his left eyelid survived paralysis, and it is with this that Bauby communicates with doctors and other medical personnel at the naval hospital in Berck, to which he has been transferred from Paris: one blink for yes, two for no. Later, an alphabetical code expands the range of his communication, enabling him to “blink” his memoir. Bauby died in 1997, two days after its publication.
     Ronald Harwood’s script, from the memoir, includes Bauby’s thoughts to himself, which we hear as voiceover, and which Bauby, before he learns of his condition after he wakes from a three-week coma, mistakes for responsive speech. Schnabel leans on point-of-view shots that aim to forge an identity between us and the protagonist; we see what Bauby does and feel ourselves, as it were, “locked in.” This tack also relieves the actor who plays Bauby from extensively simulating an almost completely paralyzed face. Schnabel’s film might be called POV Run Amok.
     The actor in question is superb—witty, heartrending, haunting. Mathieu Amalric, who is prolific, is as brilliant here as he is as Gabriel in Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September (Fin août, début septembre, 1998). His profound talent makes Schnabel’s film mandatory viewing. Rest assured, those who cannot imagine seeing an Amalric film without seeing Amalric: he is visible in objective in-hospital shots, and of course in Bauby’s memories and fantasies.
     If only we could experience Amalric’s acting without suffering Schnabel’s silly visual antics, which demean Bauby’s ordeal and try our patience.

One thought on “THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

  1. Ok, good to see that we do not agree on everything. It would have gotten slightly boring reading on. This for me was probably the movie of my year 2009. I watched it over and over again since it was shown to me first. I can’t get tired of it.

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