The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Alliance, 2007) D: Julian Schnabel, w/ Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Measured against his stated intentions, director Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a failure. He wants us to know what it feels like to be Jean-Dominique Bauby, and he does that with what he calls “first-person” camera. That is, people address the camera as though it were Bauby, and the framing and movement are meant to mirror his situation.
Bauby, a stroke victim, was fully aware but unable to move anything but his left eyelid. He used this one ability to dictate a book about his experiences.
Using the camera as Bauby’s eye conveys his helplessness and claustrophobia, but Schnabel abandons the device every chance he gets for livelier scenes of memory or imagination. Bauby’s central image, a man trapped in a diving suit, is far more pleasant to look at than it must have been to experience.
Intentions aside, the movie works as a satisfying drama filled with interesting images and strong acting, particularly by Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father and Emmanuelle Seigner as his beloved.
Schnabel also deserves congratulations for at least trying to depict the reality of catastrophic illness. It’s a braver effort than we find in films like The Savages and Away From Her, where the afflicted take a supporting role to their families, and the affliction is rendered as painlessly as possible.
The making-of docs and Schnabel’s own laconic commentary provide interesting insights into his odd working methods and highly personal aesthetic.
EXTRAS Director commentary, director interview, visual techniques doc, making-of doc. Widescreen. English, French, Spanish audio and subtitles.