"Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is as much an astonishing technical exercise as it is a touching film of perseverance. Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, it's a saga of hope and joy in the face of ultimate adversity, and while punishing to watch at times, it's something you can't quite keep your eyes off of.
Bauby (Mathieu Amalric, in an inconceivable performance) was a revered editor for Elle magazine when, in 1995, he suffered a stroke that left him with a condition referred to as "Locked-In Syndrome." Only able to move his left eye, Bauby, with the help of medical staff and his estranged wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), learned to utilize a spelling system using his only tool of blinking. Over the period of his hospitalization, Bauby dictated a book about his condition one letter at a time, stunning his family and colleagues, while he privately suffered the hell of confinement inside a body that wouldn't set him free.
Bauby's story is simply incredible to grasp, but what's even more amazing is that "Diving Bell" restrains itself from becoming sudsy movie of the week material. Written by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") and directed by Julian Schnabel ("Before Night Falls"), "Diving Bell" expresses itself through the terror of unreachable movement and the fragments of Bauby's imagination. His inner world is given a life in the film, taking in the dismay of his condition while also studying the peace as Bauby gradually brought clarity to his pain, refocusing it through the medium of writing.
The ability of Schnabel to limbo under cliché, when the temptation to give into the familiar is so deafening, is visible throughout "Diving Bell." Working with noted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, much of the story is viewed through Bauby's POV, with the lens taking on the role of the lone working eye. Using distortions and editing tricks, the audience is handed a front row seat to the man's suffering as he furiously blinks his communication and tries to retain his sanity. It's a supremely distressing vision of limitation and sets the mood of alarm suitably. Thankfully, Schnabel lets the film breathe by cutting out of the POV footage to examine Bauby's hospital surroundings and relationship woes, even exploring his healthy dream world, where he could step away from his prison of the flesh and reflect on a life lived with a crushing weight of regret.
A noted art world rascal, Schnabel doesn't sucker punch the viewer with sentiment, he asks for it politely, following the subplot of Bauby and his invalid father (Max von Sydow), who feels powerless to help his son in his time of need. It's a series of simple moments, performed elegantly by the cast, and it underscores the humanity of this powerful film superbly.
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