DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, THE (Scaphandre et le papillon, Le)

(director: Julian Schnabel; screenwriters: Ronald Harwood/based on the book “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Juliette Welfling; music: Paul Cantelon; cast: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Emmanuelle Seigner (Céline), Marie-Josée Croze (Henriette), Anne Consigny (Claude), Patrick Chesnais (Dr. Lepage), Niels Arestrup (Roussin), Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Marie Lopez), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Father Lucian/Lourdes vendor), Marina Hands (Josephine, Bauby’s latest lover), Issach de Bankole (Laurent), Max von Sydow (Papinou), Anna Chyzh (model); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Kathleen Kennedy/Jon Kilik; Miramax; 2007-France-in French with English subtitles)

“It left me wondering if Schnabel’s arty efforts were really worth the trouble when the real-life story itself was so moving and didn’t need such artificial gloss.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The remarkable true-life story of Jean-Dominic Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a bon vivant and renown journalist who had a massive cerebrovascular stroke – a rare condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’ – while driving in December of 1995. It left him totally paralyzed, apart from his left eye, when he awoke from a coma three weeks later in a northern French hospital in Berck – a desolate seacoast town somewhere near Calais. But he had total intellectual awareness, therefore even though he was technically a veggie he knew everything that was going on around him. The 43-year-old somehow found the strength while propped up in his wheelchair to hang on and write a bestselling autobiography entitled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with the help of a speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who developed a clever system of blinking for him to communicate with the world. The book publisher provided a patient stenographer Claude (Anne Consigny) who recited the alphabet (using the most popular letters in the French alphabet first) and he would blink once to indicate that she’d reached the letter he wanted or blink a number of times to indicate he completed a word or blink twice to indicate no.

Bauby is visited regularly by the attractive mother of his three children, his longtime partner Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), someone he just abandoned for another woman (Marina Hands) but who remains saintly faithful despite being betrayed by him.

American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls”/”Basquiat”/”Lou Reed’s Berlin”) won the jury’s Best Director award at Cannes for his French-language adaptation of the bestselling memoir by the late Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. The memoir was a literary sensation when it was published in 1997, just a few days after the death of its author.

It’s brought out that Bauby wrote the memoir to tell of the new life he must now learn to live. The metaphorical diving bell that keeps him grounded is compared to the butterfly, which represents his imagination.

This difficult story to transfer to film was inventively filmed; but it was was not completely satisfying to me because it was so grueling a watch and it seemed to turn unwarranted attention on the filmmaker instead of keeping the eye totally on Bauby’s struggle. The first-person camera style used, which follows that gimmicky subjective film-making technique of Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946) and follows that up with noted Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s rapid assault on our senses with an orgy of blurred images, flickering exposures, and blemished wide angles, soon wears out its welcome. It left me wondering if Schnabel’s arty efforts were really worth the trouble when the real-life story itself was so moving and didn’t need such artificial gloss. And, even though Amalric, one of France’s best thesps, gives a thoroughly first-rate moving performance and Schnabel livens things up a bit by showing a few attractive women from the editor’s past and adds Bauby’s sarcastic and irreverent inner thoughts in a voiceover (proving the guy is no saint), and, most importantly, the film justifies that it was worth telling as an inspirational tale, as some kind of “triumph of the human spirit,” it still left me feeling the film was a bit too heavy-handed. But it’s certainly better than most recent biopics.

REVIEWED ON 12/21/2007 GRADE: B-   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/