A couple of years ago, I was out a trip to New Jersey on business with my boss. When we got there, he wasn’t feeling well, so I had him sit down while I went to the clinic down the hall to see if some medical attention could be given to him. As I turned the corner with an attendant, that’s when I saw him hit the floor. After a few moments of stabilization he was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that he had a stroke. A co-worker and I stayed with him for the duration of the next couple of days until his family could get there, and over that time, he suffered several smaller strokes in the process. One minute he could talk rather lucidly, and like flipping a switch his facial muscles would sag and be nonresponsive. Once his family came, we managed to get the chance to come home, and he spent several more days in the hospital, remarkably without any repercussions from this incident, and came back to work, where we still talk (I’ve moved to another company) and share the occasional gallow humor about what happened.
He was lucky, though there are others that have experienced far worse situations. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a look at the life of Jean-Dominique Dauby. The editor of the French version of Elle magazine led a somewhat glamorous life,and one day had a severe cerebrovascular incident, whereby he was left paralyzed, but responsive in his left eye, which allowed him to communicate solely by blinking. With the help of speech therapists, he was able to state his thoughts in his book by the same title, as a metaphor of his useless body, labeled as the “diving bell,” ironically clashing with his free spirit, your “butterfly,” if you will.
Adapting Dauby’s book was Ronald Harwood, already an Oscar winner for his work on The Pianist. The film was directed by Julian Schnabel, the well-known artist who had previously done Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The script came to him at a unique point in his life, as his father was also ill and in a terminal state, so Schnabel directed this film with that in mind. Using that combined with his incredible imagination, he’s created a profoundly moving piece of cinema. Rather than focus on how Dauby will cope in his limited condition, which we certainly see at points through the film, what develops is a man who regrets leaving things the way that they were with various family and friends before he got ill, and a man who is looking forward to embracing the next stage of his physical transformation. Of shedding the diving bell, in order to enjoy what will be coming because perhaps it’s going to be better than what he’s suffering through now.
With Schnabel’s visual artistry, the film is an extremely convincing portrait of Dauby’s condition. The film starts off from Dauby’s perspective, combined with the actor portraying Dauby (Mathieu Amalric, Munich) providing voiceover just off camera. Combined with Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski (Munich), who manages to capture everything in the first person, from Dauby’s blinking, gentle weeping, to even a harrowing sequence where his right eye is shown shut to prevent septic conditions from invading, the ability to identify with Dauby in his condition is vivid and memorable.
My wife and I discussed the film briefly, and I think the way that you come out of the film depends on your philosophy. She is much more optimistic than I am, and she came away from the film feeling sad and unfulfilled. Dauby’s life had so much, he was a father of children and a caring person who enjoyed the best of life. I look at it a little bit different. Dauby’s condition is admittedly tragic, but it is due to the lack of being able to get closure for others. The lack of a proper goodbye between Dauby and his father (played remarkably by Max Von Sydow) is crushing, talking to his lover while the mother of his children has to translate is also painful. But when you are taken away from the best of things, even when you’re in a lifeless frame, the ability to remember what you were privileged to enjoy helps to prepare you for what’s to come in your future, even if others might not see it.
You’ve got a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that’s more dealing with directional speaker activity than anything else. In the opening sequences Amalric’s voice is present in the front left and right channels, and the songs that appear frequently in the movie sound clear with a dynamic soundstage. It’s subtle and well worth the time.
1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen that Schnabel was responsible for. It’s not that fair of a judgment on this film, as there’s quite a few visual effects and tricks done immediately in front of the camera, but the lucid tight shots have a little more detail than expected and the picture is quite clear and well worth the time.
Schnabel contributes a commentary for the film, which is an encouraging sign, but sometimes he comes off sounding a little bit sedated. He does talk about what was done technically to achieve Bauby’s perspective, along with what Amalric did physically to inhabit Bauby. Friends, co-stars and other cast members are identified, and thoughts on directing style are covered. It might be a low-key commentary track but it’s decent enough. The making of look at the film is titled “Submerged,” and interviews the cast who crew and shares their thoughts on the film and the story, particularly from Kaminski, Schnabel and producer Kathleen Kennedy. There’s quite a bit of on set footage and discussions on a shot or two, and it seems like a non-traditional EPK of sorts and feels very warm in tone. “A Cinematic Vision” shows how Schnabel and Kaminski put this rather individual and unique look together, and the cast discusses why it works like it does, along with the challenges of working how they did with the camera. Wrapping all of this up is Schnabel’s interview with Charlie Rose. Schnabel and Rose are apparently friends (Rose met Schnabel’s father at one point) and they’ve got a bit of a rapport, and during this piece he talks about his inspiration to make the film and what he did to transform the book. He’s certainly passionate about the material and about the man, along with how the shots were designed, and while the questions seem a little bit pedestrian from time to time it was a fascinating and somewhat lively interview.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a memorable experience. It possesses powerful and striking visuals, outstanding performances by its cast, and a story that at its heart is one of optimism and hope. To wrap up with the final words in Dauby’s book: “Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my cocoon? A metro line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.”