Monday, January 14, 2008

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

American director Julian Schabel's third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir of locked-in syndrome of the same name. Bauby experiences a stroke and awakens able to only blink one eye. He describes his condition as a binary - the diving bell of his body weighs him to the bottom of the ocean, the butterfly of his mind allows his imagination free reign. The composing of his memoir becomes the ultimate triumph of the butterfly over the diving bell.

Schnabel's adaptation is in many ways highly faithful. The first half of the film is more diving bell than butterfly, and takes place mostly from Bauby's perspective - a relentless series of POV shots in which Bauby's doctors, therapists, relatives, and friends flit in and out of his field of vision. In this portion, the film belongs most strongly to Bauby's innovative speech therapist, whose mixture of sympathy and excitement at the challenge of teaching Bauby to communicate are portrayed beautifully by Marie Josee-Croze. In the second half of the film, as Bauby's butterfly begins to emerge, we are finally rewarded with the blissful escape denied to "Jean-Do" - the camera begins to move about freely, and we get our first good looks at our subject. In this portion, it's Mathieu Almaric who shines as Bauby; strapped down and locked in, Almaric nevertheless conveys a full range of emotions simply by blinking one eyelid and moving one eye.

All of that said, the film, despite Janusz Kaminski's excellent cinematography and an excellent and moving soundtrack (U2, Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground), left me far less emotionally engaged than Bauby's memoir. Perhaps this is because the memoir allowed me to see Bauby's mind working in a way that, as he acknowledges, doesn't actually occur. The film, in which we see that a single sentence of the memoir can take hours to painstakingly blink out, is perhaps not in the position to convey the triumph of the butterfly without shortchanging the diving bell in a way that would have been disingenuous.

One final note: after just observing that I was less moved by the film than the book, I need to say that Max von Sydow's two-scene portrayal of Bauby's shut-in father is perhaps the most moving work of acting I have ever seen. Both of those scenes, the first a flashback when the hale son visits the ailing father, the second a one-sided speaker phone conversation in which the shut-in father calls the locked-in son, left me in tears as Sydow leaped from senile confusion to grief to tenderness, back to confusion. If for no other reason, you should go see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for the 78 year old Sydow, free from a stupid villain role in 2002's Minority Report and a stupider villain role in last year's Rush Hour 3, putting his entire being into an all too brief role.

1 comment:

Robot said...

I have now read your entire blog to date. God help me. (No? Oh, okay.)