There have been many films made about handicapped people overcoming the odds and making a good life for themselves. Most of them are sappy “inspirational” garbage designed to appeal to Hallmark greeting card readers. The Diving Bell and Butterfly is a film that takes similar subject matter and attempts to make a real work of art rather than a sentimental fluff piece.
The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the successful editor of Elle Magazine, who at the age of 43 had a massive stroke and found himself paralyzed from head to toe. After this debilitating stroke, Bauby was left with only his left eye under control. Bauby eventually comes to terms with the state he’s in and find a system to communicate with in which a nurse list off the alphabet and he blinks when they get to the letter he wants. Bauby eventually decides to write an entire memoir using this system, the memoir on which the film is based.
A lesser film would take the perspective of Bauby’s doctor, physical therapist or wife. Such a choice would have resulted in an inability to truly emphasize with the film’s real protagonist: Bauby himself. To fully put the viewer in Bauby’s shoes the film’s first act is almost entirely from his point of view. The camera becomes Bauby’s eye, it turns as his eye turns and when he blinks the viewer sees it as well. This would seem like a very claustrophobic technique, and indeed it is, but to a good end. The viewer really comes to empathize with Bauby and realize his plight.
Eventually Bauby comes to accept his situation; at this point the camera moves away from his point of view and the film take a more conventional third person style. Oddly, once you begin seeing Bauby as he has become, he becomes even more sympathetic than he was during the claustrophobic point of view parts. It’s hard to judge Mathieu Amalric’s performance, as he has the challenge of performing with only one eye. It’s hard to tell how much of his work is raw human performance or how much is makeup. The film does have a number flashbacks with Bauby in his former glory, and Amalric is fine during these portions.
Other good performances can be found from Marie-Josee Croze as Bauby’s physical therapist and Emmanuelle Seigner as the mother of Bauby’s children. The real acting highlight however comes from the legendary Max Von Sydow, who plays Bauby’s 92 year old father. Sydow is only in two scenes but he really steals the show, the second scene is particularly touching.
The man most responsible for the success of this film is the New York film director and professional artist Julian Schnabel. A lesser filmmaker would have done everything in his power to try to emphasize the tragedy of Bauby’s situation and/or the triumph that was his ability to write the book. Schabel, however, realized that Bauby’s story spoke for itself and decided to simply tell the story as best he could, then let the audience come to their own conclusions. The result is a beautiful movie that tells an inspiring story in a way that never feels schmaltzy or insults its audience’s intelligence. In the wrong hands this flm could have been as bad as such disability movies as Children of a Lesser God or Radio. Instead what is delivered is a film more in the tradition of Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot or Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside.
Like My Left Foot, the film never makes the mistake of turning its main protagonist into a saint simply because he’s disabled. Bauby was fairly self absorbed before he had his stroke and he never really treated his children’s mother very well. Schabel does not judge Bauby, but he also doesn’t overlook these aspects of his life the way something like A Beautiful Mind does. Instead the film looks at Bauby as a complex human being with both good and bad qualities.
The film’s ultimate message is that it is best to keep hold of your humanity even in the worst of situations. Jean-Dominique Bauby managed to accomplish more with one eye than many able bodied people were able to, but again, this is no mere message movie; it’s a complex character study of a man in an extreme situation, as well as a fascinating look at his day to day life. The audience is treated with anecdotes about the everyday struggles Bauby faces, like not being able to change the channel on his television or having to make telephone conversations through an interpreter. Occasionally his plight reminded me of an even poorer soul in Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun who didn’t even have on eye or the ability to hear as Bauby did.
This is a beautiful and inspiring film that dodges all the traps that beautiful and inspiring movies all too often fall into. A triumph of both style and substance; this is a fascinating, non-formulaic work of art from a brilliant filmmaker who will go to any length to tell a story as best as he can.
**** out of four