MOVIE REVIEW ★★★ 1/2 Visually Stunning French Film Flutters Onto American Screens

Beauty of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Claude, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s transcriber (played by Anne Cosigny), shows Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) his finished work in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
Etienne George—Miramax Films

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

(French Title: Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

Director: Julian Schnabel

Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze

Now Playing at Kendall Square Cinema

Based on a true story, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” uses some interesting cinematic devices to draw the viewer close and make a strong emotional impact. The film tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), the editor of Elle magazine, who was left nearly completely paralyzed after a stroke. Although he could only blink one eye, he still managed to dictate his memoir (published shortly before his death) on which the film’s screenplay is based.

The film may be in French, but very little is lost in translation. Unlike many faster-paced or comedic foreign films, you aren’t missing much by reading the subtitles. This is partly because “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an essentially visual film. Bad screenwriting can yield movies that fall flat — using actor’s lines to tell a story rather than showing it with the images on the screen. It is refreshing to see visual capabilities used to stunning effect in this film.

I was skeptical as to how a film could succeed in entertaining when the hero is unable to move except for blinking a single eyelid. How interesting could two hours of a guy in his bed really be? Director Julian Schnabel succeeds by manipulating the point-of-view, flashbacks to Bauby’s life before the stroke, and sequences from Bauby’s imagination.

The film opens from Bauby’s point-of-view as he is just awakening from his coma and realizes his devastating condition. Much of the film is shown from Bauby’s perspective, giving the film a unique feel. The camera is completely still as his paralyzed head would be and we only see what Bauby could see from his limited range of vision. We see him blink, focus on objects, and cry from his perspective as if we were also trapped in an uncooperative body.

Although it is interesting, thankfully the entire film is not shot from this limited perspective. Just when you can’t stand this restricted vision any longer, the film cuts to scenes from Bauby’s past — including gut-wrenching depictions of Bauby’s ailing father, beautifully portrayed by Max von Sydow. There are also several fantasy sequences set to a gorgeous original soundtrack with music by Paul Cantelon. These dreamy interludes are linked with limited scenes showing Bauby in his handicapped state, but the film refuses to linger on his pathetic form too long in order to just make us pity Bauby. When Bauby’s lifeless face is shown, void of life except for his highly animated left eye, the effect is unexpectedly powerful.

Some viewers may find this creative direction gimmicky, and that is fair, but it is still interesting, and the film manages to avoid many of the clichés that can ruin this sort of “man overcoming adversity” film. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” manages to be at once emotionally powerful and beautiful without falling into melodrama.

Highly acclaimed critically, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” has been nominated for and won scores of awards including best director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film is also nominated for three Golden Globes, including best director and best screenplay — impressive for a small foreign film. Look for it to be a contender for best foreign film at the Academy Awards later this year.