The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax, PG-13)

film_diving-bell_sm.jpgThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly is considerably more astounding that it sounds on paper.





I’ve expressed my disdain for the "docudrama" or the "biopic" in previous reviews, so a retread probably isn’t necessary. Director Julian Schnabel has made his film career out of the genre, his first film a look at the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (Basquiat), the second an adaptation of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas‘ autobiography (Before Night Falls). As The Diving Bell and the Butterfly marks only his third film, it’s difficult to say whether Schabel’s adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of the same name completes an unnamed trilogy of the lives of artists cut too short. Nonetheless, the film continues Schnabel’s fascination, approaching Bauby, the former editor of French Elle magazine, with an impeccable perspective that almost completely overshadows the work he did on Basquiat and Arenas.

At the peak of his career, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) suffers a stroke that renders him almost entirely paralyzed and unable to speak. At the age of 43, Bauby was the editor of the prestigious Elle, a father of three and lover of many women, including his wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of Roman Polanski) and sometime mistress Joséphine (Lady Chatterley‘s Marina Hands). The stroke drags Bauby, referred to by his friends as Jean-Do, into what’s called a "locked-in syndrome," with the only possibility of communicable interaction being in the form of his left eye. In a sort of updating of The Miracle Worker, language specialist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) develops a system of communication through blinking and a utilitarian alphabet, thus prompting Jean-Do to write his memoir through a long series of blinks.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is considerably more astounding that it sounds on paper. Aided with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who’s acted as director of photography on almost every film Steven Spielberg has ever made, Schnabel turns The Diving Bell and the Butterfly into an experiment in perception. Much of the film is shot from the viewpoint of Jean-Do’s functioning eye with the film drawing up its curtains at the very moment Jean-Do wakes up from his coma. The images are blurry, frustrating and entrancing and eventually form a rhythm of storytelling unlike anything you’ve likely seen before. It only becomes more apparent how well Schnabel and Kaminski’s experiment worked when they do the unthinkable and take the camera outside of Jean-Do’s head. I’m still a bit unsure why Schnabel found it necessary to switch the film into third-person, if for no other reason that to remind you how remarkable the film was when it was still speaking in first.

Ultimately, when you peel off everything and get to its core, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly serves as an especially good example of "well, if you’re gonna make a film about [insert your exhausted subgenre of film, in this case an uplifting film about real person who becomes an invalid], you’d be lucky to make it as good as this." The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is less about Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man few Americans probably were aware of before the film came out, than it is about voice and language in film and storytelling. It’s at turns dazzling and beautifully chaotic and, at the end of the day, Schnabel’s finest foray into infusing his artistic roots into the landscape of film (because, let’s face it, the only thing exceptional about Before Night Falls is its lead actor, Javier Bardem, and maybe Johnny Depp as a transsexual, and you only went to see Basquiat to see David Bowie play Andy Warhol). | Joe Bowman

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