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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Diving Bell and the Butterfly

2007 (Julian Schnabel) PG, 112 minutes - French with English subtitles

Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze and Anne Consigny

This film is based on the autobiographical book of the same name written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, author and editor of ELLE magazine. In 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, which left him completely paralyzed except for the ability to blink his left eyelid. The condition, called "locked-in syndrome," left his mental faculties intact. Thanks to medical technology Bauby survived long enough to author The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, using a communication system that involved blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet in order of frequency of use, over and over again.
In his film adaptation of the book, Schnabel uses some interesting low-tech but very effective techniques to immerse the viewer in Bauby's condition. In a scene where Bauby's right eye requires sewing up because he no longer has the ability to blink, Schnabel sews latex in the shape of an eyelid over the camera lens and continues to shoot. On another occasion in the film requiring Bauby, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, to be shot completely alone on the ocean, Schnabel himself piggybacked Mathieu Almaric in character to a platform that was built for the scene. Many of the scenes in the hospital were shot in the very same coastal hospital where Bauby convalesced. The entire palette of colour used in the film, play of light and set and production choices reinforce Schnabel's strong commitment to the material and the desire to use every visual cue, no matter how small or insignificant, as an element to reinforce the total isolation of Bauby's condition.
There are documented discrepancies between the Schnabel's interpretation of Bauby's personal relationships and lovers, wives and reality as recorded by Bauby. This can inevitably be chalked up to the filmmaker's discretion and politics. As a book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly offers us a poignant and poetic view into a medically achieved twilight zone: the two years between Bauby's stroke, "recovery" and eventual death of heart failure. Schnabel's film remains faithful to the delicate reflectiveness of the book but adds another dimension to the quiet beauty through his ingenious and creative approach to the medium of film and narrative. 


Carmen Victor

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