RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
• Submerged: The Making of TDBATB
• A Cinematic Vision (Featurette)
• Director’s commentary
• Charlie Rose interviews Julian Schnabel
It’s a funny, beautiful, heartbreaking Point-Of-View journey into tragedy and transformation.
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s rap persona, “Crazee Eyes Killah.”
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Niels Arestrup, Max Von Sydow.
Director: Julian Schnabel
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
On December 8, 1995, well-known journalist, author, and Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (portrayed by Mathieu Amalric) suffered a massive stroke that left him nearly completely paralyzed. Isolated from the external and only able to communicate by blinking his left eye, Bauby was diagnosed with “Locked-In Syndrome,” a rare disease made even more dreadful by the fact that its sufferers maintain complete conscious awareness.
With the help of a therapist, Bauby learns to communicate using a letter chart and a system of blinks. He struggles to reconnect with his family and his friends, gradually- and often humorously- adapting to an entirely new existence, all the while dictating the eponymous memoir of his transformation to his assistant using a glacially slow letter-by-letter system.
Bauby sorts through memories, fantasy, and imagination, and finds that even in isolation, great change is still possible.
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It’s difficult to imagine what being truly, completely paralyzed is like. Being unable to move, let alone speak, would be a private hell for nearly everyone, and seems like an easy gateway to madness or suicide.
While the journey of a paralyzed, isolated, and ostensibly doomed Frenchman sounds awfully bleak, Julian Schnabel and Janusz Kaminski have created something interesting, beautiful, and undeniably unique in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Not only have they created a compelling narrative around one of the most harrowing subjects imaginable, but they’ve made it funny and insightful, and this makes the journey a very worthwhile experience.
Diving Bell is almost exclusively shot from Bauby’s point of view. The POV construct thrusts Bauby’s “Locked in” condition upon the viewer in a way that’s estranging and disorienting, and it immediately endears us to Bauby, as we experience his horrific realizations alongside him, complete with an often dry, humorous internal dialogue that serves as the film’s central narration. We don’t even see the face of Bauby (played and narrated superbly by Almaric) until well into the film’s first hour. This succeeds greatly in allowing the viewer to “become” Bauby, and enforces a deep link between Bauby and the audience that pays dividends throughout the film.
One of the great things about Diving Bell is that it isn’t a standard, “Oh, if you think your life is bad, check THIS guy out!” melodrama. Schnabel and Bauby obviously have a lot to say beyond “overcome adversity” pablum, and much of it comes from the way we watch this film through Bauby’s eye. The eye becomes a literal camera lens. Cast members toy with camera placement by wandering in and out of frame- one brilliant moment has Bauby’s physician remarking: “If you go this far to the left, he won’t see you, so stay between here and here,” much like a director might illustrate a mark to an actor. Much like Bauby, the audience of this film, or any film, is essentially a one-eyed prisoner. It isn’t an indictment so much as it is an observation; what the audience does with a film is always up to them.
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Bauby’s narration, much of which is taken directly from the book, is a detached, light, and sometimes ironic assessment of his surroundings, and is ultimately what makes the narrative digestible for the viewer. Amalric has a great voice and face for this role, and his relaxed approach does wonders for the film. At one point, Johnny Depp was attached to the Bauby role. This would have been disastrous, since what makes Amalric’s Bauby work is that we can identify with him so much, whereas we’d have all been watching ‘Depp-as-Bauby’ if the project had gone the other way. However it was reached, choosing Amalric was a great decision.
Max Von Sydow has a wonderful role as Bauby’s elderly father. A scene which has Bauby slowly and clumsily communicating with his father is heartbreakingly juxtaposed with a happier scene from Bauby’s memory, and it’s one of the most moving moments in the film. Diving Bell‘s cast does a uniformly great job.
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I’ll warn that Diving Bell can be harrowing. Much of the film is spent waiting for Bauby to spell out words as his assistants read letters from a list and watch for his blink signals. While this serves to show how frustrating the condition is, it’s tough to hear the same “E I O A U T” pattern over and over again, especially since the system they’d developed for Bauby seems so needlessly inefficient. I kept wanting them to implement a divide and conquer approach where they start from the middle of the alphabet and choose an upper or a lower half, and keep dividing like that until there’s a more manageable list of letters to deal with (it works well when writing software, at least), but they insisted on doing it linearly every time. Whatever, guys.
Janusz Kaminski created a fantastic, hazy, almost dreamlike look for the film, and it’s one of Diving Bell‘s biggest assets. His washed out greens and blues echo the theme of underwater isolation nicely.
In the end, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly should leave you with much to ponder, and it certainly won’t drown you with maudlin tropes as the subject matter might suggest. It comes highly recommended.
It’s a very well populated release, with a making-of documentary, a “cinematic vision” featurette, and a Charlie Rose interview with Schnabel. There’s also feature commentary by the director.
The audio is an iron-clad Dolby 3/2.1, and the video looks great, even for standard def. I’d actually imagine that high definition wouldn’t do much for this release, as so much of it is intentionally blurred anyway.
The box art isn’t mind blowing, and is probably the most mundane thing about the release.
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