A Moving, Visually Arresting Film Based on a Remarkable True Story
An emotionally engaging and often cinematically dazzling adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) was nominated for four Academy Awards: directing, cinematography, editing and screenplay. The extraordinary story is that despite suffering a stroke which left him unable to communicate except by blinking one eye, Bauby still managed to author his memoir.
The movie was directed by Julian Schnabel, a widely known painter whose works are in museum collections throughout the world and whose previous films were Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000). The cinematographer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was Janusz Kaminski, who won Oscars for Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). The script for The Diving Bell was written by Ronald Harwood, who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Pianist (2002).
Although Bauby's story of a man blinking out his memoir one letter at a time seems unpromising source material for a movie, the filmmakers were inventive. For one thing, they enlivened the movie by interweaving Bauby's memories and fantasies with his everyday life at the hospital. But their most ingenious idea was to show much of the story from the paralyzed man's point of view. This results in a superb visual style that evokes both the horror and beauty of Bauby's inner world.
In the difficult role of Jean-Dominique Bauby, Mathieu Almaric gives a fine performance. Almaric has appeared in many French-language films, but English-speakers may recognize him from Munich (2005).
A Bon Vivant Becomes Afflicted With Locked-In Syndrome
As the film opens, 42-year-old Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) awakens from a coma to learn he has had a severe stroke. He can see and hear, but he can't move a muscle except to blink his left eye. The movie makes us feel as if we are trapped inside his paralyzed body.
As former editor of Elle magazine, Bauby is a verbal man who now can't talk or write. But a speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) introduces a way for him to express himself: she recites the letters of the alphabet ordered by frequency of use, and he blinks when she comes to the letter he wants. Employing this system, he is able to author his memoir.
In the hospital, Bauby receives visitors, including his three young children and their mother Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner). But it emerges that shortly before his stroke he left Céline for a woman who now never comes to visit him.
Via flashback, it is established that Bauby was close to his aged father (Max von Sydow). There's a poignant scene where the father phones the hospital and tries to talk with his son, but Bauby's letter-by-letter responses come through an interpreter at a snail's pace, and the old man can't hold back his tears.
Sometimes we are shown Bauby's memories, as when he and a girlfriend (Marina Hands) — both the picture of health — go to Lourdes on a lark, and she gets him to buy her a kitschy, electrified statue of the Madonna. And we also see his fantasies, as when he and his good-looking transcriber (Anne Consigny) enjoy a huge and delicious meal at Paris' best fish restaurant, where they feed each other and share kisses.
Excellent Director's Commentary and Three Fairly Good Featurettes
On the Diving Bell and the Butterfly DVD, director Julian Schnabel supplies a very informative feature-length English-language audio commentary. He shot the film at the real-life seaside hospital in northern France where Bauby spent over a year, and some of the actual patients and staff appear in the movie. Schnabel claims the film is being shown to doctors, nurses and orderlies in hospitals and stroke centers.
In addition, the DVD contains three reasonably good featurettes with a total runtime of 41 minutes. Perhaps the most interesting is the seven-minute "A Cinematic Vision," which shows the unusual sight of actors doing scenes looking directly into the camera, sometimes only inches away from it, while Almaric is in a soundproof box several feet away. There's also a 13-minute making-of, which is run-of-the-mill, but does give you a chance to hear from screenwriter Harwood and cinematographer Kaminski, as well as to listen to actors Almaric, Seigner, and Croze speak English. Finally, there's a fascinating 21-minute excerpt from The Charlie Rose Show in which Rose interviews Schnabel, who says that by being able to author a book about his life, Bauby turned it into art, and thus transcended death.
Below I have listed all the details for the DVD containing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Release Date: April 29, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Nudity, Sexual Content and Some Language
Widescreen (1.85:1), Color
Original French 5.1 Dolby Surround
Dubbed English Sound Track
Dubbed Spanish Sound Track
English Captions for the Hearing Impaired
Audio Commentary (in English) by Director Julian Schnabel
Submerged: The Making of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (13 minutes)
A Cinematic Vision (7 minutes)
Charlie Rose Interviews Julian Schnabel (21 minutes)