FILM REVIEW: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France/ USA, 2007)
Directed by Julian Schnabel

Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Max von Sydow

Given that it is common practice to praise a filmmaker by describing them as an artist, one could assume that all artists would make great filmmakers. In fact this is very rarely the case, with many artists who dabble in the medium producing works which are closer to installations than actual films. Sometimes the works are so personal that they collapse into narcissism; other times, as with the work of Douglas Gordon, they display such overt contempt for the medium that no sane person would sit through them.In his first two films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel fell into the first of these two traps. Both were billed as biographical tributes to artists whom Schnabel admired, but the former especially quickly morphed into a self-serving promotion of his own art and experiences, to the point at which the central character was completely marginalised. But with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel has overcome this considerable hurdle to produce an awe-inspiring film which truly makes us appreciate every living moment we have.Much film scholarship has been devoted to the director's relationship to the subject of their films, and to whether it is a good thing to put such a strongly personal or autobiographical stamp on one's work. Schnabel said that he was drawn to the project having cared for his elderly father in the last years of his life, drawing inspiration from the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby which resonated with his own circumstances. He has expressed this by making a vivid first-person account of what initially seems like a tragedy, but with the focus very much on the characters rather than the puppeteer pulling the strings.This is evident from the opening shot, where we see the outside world as if we are inside Jean-Do's head. Although this shooting approach has been used before (most notably in Being John Malkovich), this time the focus is less on what we see as how we see it. Schnabel and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński used 'tilt-and-swing' lenses, in which only a small part of the frame is ever in focus and this part can be easily manoeuvred to match the movements of an eyeball. This simple creative decision goes some way in establishing both the disorientation of the central character and the immediate claustrophobia that comes from observing his condition.

For the first twenty minutes of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, we feel like we are trapped inside someone else's body, like John Cusack at the end of Being John Malkovich. Before any of the fantasy sequences or the flashbacks to his life leading up to the stroke, we are forced to confront the bleak and depressing scenario of a man whose body has genuinely become a prison. When the doctors sew up his right eye to stop it becoming infected, we see everything so up close that we squirm and flinch, desperate to look away while knowing full well that he can't.Because the sense of claustrophobia created is so real and so intense, we begin to understand and share in the character's despair. Our limited perspective matches his own, so that we experience the same frustrations, from the trial-and-error of blinking out sentences to the feeling of blind panic as more information comes to light. When his speech therapist misunderstands Jean-Do, thinking he has said he wants to die and storming out of the room, we feel genuinely helpless. Schnabel puts us so close to the experience that we are forced to abandon all our misgivings and hope that there are better things in store.Thankfully, we do not spend the entire film as trapped observers. The title of the film summarises the contradiction between body and spirit which is central to Jean-Do's predicament. His body is a diving-bell (or in this case an old-fashioned diver's suit), which is cumbersome and through which one can only observe rather than influence the world around them. His spirit, on the other hand, is a butterfly, emerging from the grim exterior of the cocoon as something fragile yet beautiful, and most of all free.

As the film moves on, our perspective broadens out at the same rate as the central character. We begin to see flashbacks of Jean-Do's previous life, from his presence at a photo shoot for the cover of Elle to a sequence of him sharing oysters with a girlfriend. These scenes, coupled with the character's soul-searching internal monologues, depict a life which, while wealthy and affluent, was not rewarding or fulfilling in any way. Mathieu Amalric, best known as the villain in Quantum of Solace, gives a beautifully layered performance, walking through these scenes with a sense of existential frustration even when his life seems most exciting.The strength of the film's initial section means that when our vision broadens out, it doesn't simply collapse into yet another triumph-of-the-human-spirit-over-adversity story. For starters, we don't have to put up with our central character spouting off a lot of cheesy speeches about overcoming adversity. Then there is the personality of the characters and the extent of their physical transformation; you don't get the sense of people pretending to be ill so they can still look cool in the bar afterwards. Finally, there is the ending, which although it contains elements of triumph is also profoundly melancholic. We still leave on a hopeful note, but the film makes no attempt to sanitise or compromise its story for fear of undermining said optimism.

If the film has a message beyond its appraisal for life and love, it is to do with the difficulty of communication and the process of dealing with regret. One of the best scenes come when Jean-Do's father, played by the ever-reliable Max von Sydow, calls his son and breaks down over the phone, out of sorrow, frustration with his fading memory and anger that both are physically incapable of helping each other. Ronald Harwood's script is rich with these kinds of pathos-ridden exchanges which at their best are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.The fantasy elements of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represent both the film's greatest strength and its first of two problems. The images Schnabel conjures up are ravishingly beautiful, with scenes from Jean-Do's past intersecting and criss-crossing at the same breakneck speed as Joel's memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But there are occasions when we linger too long in the imagination, when what is really interesting is the day-to-day physical struggle of the central character.

Similarly, the film shifts rather uneasily from one central relationship to another. In the opening section we see Jean-Do's speech therapist (a great performance from Marie-Josée Croze) teaching him slowly and painfully how to communicate. We develop a great affection for her character, so that when the film moves to focus on Jean-Do's partner and children, we are frustrated and disappointed that we don't see more of her. Schnabel deliberately shot the film in the same hospital and ward in which the real life Jean-Do was treated, which makes it all the more unusual - if not slightly ungrateful - for the staff to become marginalised as things progress.In the end, however, these little problems are easily forgivable. For The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is that rarest of things - a film about the triumph of the human spirit which is genuinely uplifting and emotionally gripping. Unlike Rob Reiner's The Bucket List, it doesn't approach death or illness with stultifying schmaltz, and it really does make you value your life, health and well-being. While not quite a perfect film, it is by far and away Schnabel's best work, with enough vivid imagery and emotional heartache to stay with you for years.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: A genuinely uplifting biopic


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