Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (****) is the crowning achievement in filmmaking for 2007. No film captured me the way this film did, and that’s saying a lot; 2007 was a landmark year for cinema. Movies like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN challenged their genres and defied conventions; THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, ZODIAC, and INTO THE WILD were all incredibly evocative films, populated with exceptional acting, production values, and themes. But what Schnabel and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) have done is create an impressionistic painting inside of their camera; this is art-as-cinema, utterly exquisite in every visual way. Rarely have I ever encountered a film of such ravishing beauty; Juliette Welfling’s brilliant film editing also adds to the film’s distinct rhythm. The screenwriter Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) has adapted Jean-Dominique Bauby’s poignant memoir with grace and elegance and never a hint of condescension. This is a powerful film with a uniquely powerful story at its center, and the lead performance by Mathieu Amalric is nothing short of astonishing. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is one of those movies that you might not want to watch, but you owe it to yourself to see.
Amalric is Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a near-fatal stroke while on a routine drive with his son. A healthy guy for the most part, it was the sort of tragedy that comes without warning or reason. Paralyzed from head to toe and confined to his hospital bed or wheel chair, Bauby, as one could imagine, was helpless. Except for one thing: he could blink his right eye (his left eye had to be sewn shut due to health concerns, the depiction of which will stay with me forever). Bauby was stricken with “locked-in” syndrome. Essentially, he was aware of his surroundings, his brain activity was adequate, and he could hear and understand what people were saying. But he couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t walk, couldn’t eat, etc. Obviously wealthy, Bauby was able to afford top-notch treatment at the best available hospitals in France. A team of impossibly patient (not to mention stunningly beautiful) nurses and therapists were there to help Bauby recover as best as possible; given his situation the doctors didn’t promise much, but hoped for the best. Then, in a stroke of genius, one of the therapists devised a way to communicate with Bauby. She would sit with him and read him each individual letter of the alphabet; it would be up to Bauby to blink with his right eye when she read the correct letter that he wanted to use to form a word. Initially resistant to this routine, Bauby didn’t want to feel like science experiment. But he soon realized that this was the only way he could continue being a human. Bauby and his therapists worked for months, and in the end, Bauby wrote a book, a slender memoir detailing his experiences with “locked-in” syndrome, his life before the stroke, and his vivid dreams and imagination. All of this is brought to life by Schnabel in such a lyrical, poetic way that the depressing aspects of the film are softened, bringing the audience fully into Bauby’s life. Bauby’s ex-wife Celine, the wonderful (and gorgeous) actress Emmanuelle Seigner, was also by his side, even in moments of extreme difficulty.
So, as you can see from the above story description, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS this movie isn’t. It’s a scary film, scary in a way that most horror movies don’t even begin to approach. The situation faced by Bauby is something that could happen to anyone, at any time, and at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, as I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t help but feel lucky. This is the sort of movie that reminds you how lucky you, and the ones you love, really are. You realize that your problems pale in comparison to those of other people; if a movie can provide some sort of realistic perspective on life than you know that you’re experiencing something special. The way that Harwood weaves Bauby’s interior monologue (Amalric provides a sobering voice-over narration) throughout the story and overlapping with the dialogue from the other characters is nothing short of remarkable; the film exists, and succeeds, on multiple levels all at once. The film’s opening 30 minutes, shot entirely with subjective camerawork and replete with visual distortions which convey Bauby’s mental and physical state are some of the most emotionally intense sequences I’ve ever seen. When you do finally see what Bauby looks like, it’s a relief for the audience to be able to put face with voice.
Amalric, a French actor who was terrific in a dynamic supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s MUNICH, is devastating as Bauby, if for no other reason than he really depicts how tough living life like this would be. Bauby, not the most sympathetic of people, was a lady’s man throughout his marriage, and isn’t the most likable character. Living life in the fast lane, gallavanting around Europe with models and driving sports cars, Bauby was emblematic of his industry, and as a result, was probably not as good of a father as he might have liked to have been. The relationship that he has with his own dad, played perfectly by Max Von Sydow, is layered and complicated; in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Bauby gives his ailing father a shave, and they discuss the kinds of men that they have become. Painful, honest, and funny, all at once, this scene transcends the “hallmark-moment” nature of its fine details, and becomes a moment of catharsis for Bauby, and the audience. There is a sense of relief that this scene provides that the film is not able to offer up in many other places. Amalric, confined to a bed or wheelchair for almost the entire performance, is able to elicit sympathy from the audience in unique ways; his lust for life, shown in vivid flashbacks, showcases a man in love with many people (including himself) and a man in love with the possibilities that life has to offer. Watch for a splendid sequence late in the film that has Bauby and a female companion sucking down oysters and caviar and champagne; drunk on the joys of life, Amalric is able to convey the intoxication one feels when surrounded with such glorious edible pleasures. And the dedication he puts into learning the new communication system, which while monumentally challenging, is inspirational to say the least. It’s almost impossible for me to utter the phrase “I can’t do that” without almost feeling guilty.
Schnabel, a filmmaker with a painter’s background, directs in brush strokes, giving THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY a surreal quality from the opening sequences. The motif of Bauby trapped inside of an old-school scuba outfit is as lyrical as it is frightening; there’s no doubt that Bauby must have felt like that—trapped and isolated and alone. Schnabel’s ability to bring the audience extremely close to this feeling of helplessness is truly staggering, and Kaminski’s ever probing camerawork never relents. The way that they have designed THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY creates an uneasy mood that eventually brightens up as the story progresses. Schnabel, who’s previous films BASQUAIT and BEFORE NIGHT FALLS also centered on fractured souls, has an innate gift with texture, light, and composition; working with a cinematographer as gifted as Kaminski can only be seen as a match made in heaven. The visual storytelling displayed in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is a remarkable feat.
So, if you claim to love film, or if you fashion yourself as a true movie buff, there is simply no way you can afford to miss THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. You can’t brush it off because it’s an “art film” or because it has subtitles. The lack of familiar actors should not act as a deterrent. Bottom line: if you care about the importance and relevance of filmmaking in today’s society, than it’s downright laughable if you aren’t able to find time to see this masterpiece of storytelling. It’s a film that will make you cry, make you laugh, and remind you of why life needs to be lived to the fullest at all times. This is pure cinema, and easily the best and most profound movie of the year.