Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Last week we descended into the bowels of The Machine Girl and came out sticky, tingly, and feeling just a little bit dirty… so this week I’m going to class things up a bit by covering an award-winning film that doesn’t involve Japanese schoolgirls or geysers of blood.
By  · Published on June 11th, 2008

Last week we descended into the bowels of The Machine Girl and came out sticky, tingly, and feeling just a little bit dirty… so this week I’m going to class things up a bit by covering an award-winning film that doesn’t involve Japanese schoolgirls or geysers of blood.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens with a pov shot of a man awakening from a coma. Blackness becomes a foggy swirl, which eventually clears to reveal a hospital room, a nurse, and a doctor. The man whose view we’ve adopted is Jean-Dominique Bauby, the successful editor of French Elle, who seemed at the top of his game before a stroke paralyzed him in 1996 and left him suffering from ‘locked-in syndrome.’ He awakens from a three-week coma to find the only muscle still in his control is his left eye. His right eye works to an extent, but the doctors feel it’s at the risk of going septic so they sew it closed. This is shown entirely as a pov shot, and we move gracefully from disgust as the needle and thread poke, pull, and pierce Bauby’s eyelids, to sadness as his (and our) already limited view shrinks until the last ray of light is sealed out forever. It is with his remaining eye, the portal into and out of Bauby’s world, that he blinked out the book that eventually became this movie.

I avoided this movie when it was released in theaters last year because it looked to be utterly bleak and depressing. Those attributes can work for me in a fictional world with fictional lives (The Pledge and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are two great examples), but the effect can often weigh too heavily when I know real people are being represented. A friend eventually convinced me to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly after its recent DVD release, and while at least one scene still made this manly man cry (more on that later) it’s far from the gloomy and solemn affair I expected. Due in large part to Janusz Kaminski’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, the world Bauby sees ostensibly with his eye but mostly with his memory and imagination is both vibrant and beautiful. Even the real world is a visual dance as objects and people blur and bend as they come in and out of Bauby’s focus.

Mathieu Amalric as Bauby is a joy to watch, especially in the flashback scenes where both his attitude and expressions are so full of life. Amalric and the man he’s portraying both seem so carefree and infectious that the abrupt cuts back to his frozen and bedridden state are alarming. Bauby has a handful of visitors, and through them he realizes who the people are that truly care for him. I know it seems trite, but it works due to Bauby’s slow awakening to the truth. This is especially true and poignant when it comes to the mother of his three children, played by Emmanuelle Seigner. She visits more often than most, even though they’ve been amicably separated for some time. One of her visits finds her forced to stay in the room and translate while Bauby “speaks” with his current mistress, forced to listen as the woman explains why she can’t bring herself to visit. It’s more than a little awkward and painful.

Of course even in his immobility Bauby is drawn to beautiful women. It helps that this hospital in the north of France apparently follows a quota system where four out of every five women are required to be smoking hot. Again, Kaminski’s camera works its magic here as the audience, through Bauby’s eyes, seems to fall in love with each woman who comes to grace the screen. All three of his therapists are French beauties and a scene where his speech therapist shows him how to exercise his tongue leaves both Bauby and the viewer crying foul.

Speaking of crying, there’s a scene late in the movie that broke through my tough and hardened exterior and squeezed out some tears. Bauby’s father, played briefly and spectacularly by Max von Sydow, suffers from his own limited health issues and is confined to his apartment. Unable to visit his son, he settles for a frustrating phone call where he learns firsthand the true extent of Bauby’s condition and realizes he’ll never again get to hear his son’s voice. After hanging up, von Sydow breaks down and weeps unapologetically for his son. I felt so bad for the old man that after the film ended I had to immediately throw in my copy of Strange Brew just to see him smiling maniacally as Brewmeister Smith.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly succeeds in taking a difficult premise and turning it into an entertaining and thought-provoking film. The message about living each day as if it was your last and never taking your life and the people in it for granted isn’t particularly new or original, but director Julian Schnabel’s presentation is. Based on its subject matter the film should be a lot more depressing than it is, but through its heart and visual style the viewer is lifted along with Bauby and given a chance to see what can be achieved with a single eyelid and a limitless imagination.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.