For a film that deals with one of the toughest subject matters available – that of physical paralysis – Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” manages to deliver a surprisingly life affirming and inventive testament to the strength of human will.
This subject matter is often a very depressing and dry topic, yet he manages to keep it engaging by having a flawed lead who confronts his self pity and, most of the time, pushes it aside to keep fighting.
At 42, Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke and began the nightmare of ‘locked in syndrome’ – his mind is completely functional, but his body totally paralysed except his left eye which is able to blink.
The first act brilliantly portrays this from a first person perspective, his voiceover providing a monologue of despair, fear and annoyance. It’s disturbing, none more so when we literally see one of his eyes being sewn shut from the inside, but very effective in conveying the helplessness and frustration of his condition.
The rest of the film incorporates more familiar third person shots, but Schnabel adds all sorts of intriguing new elements from flashbacks of his past life to imaginative fantasy wanderings. He never paints Bauby as a saint or heroic, the man was a callous womaniser and post-stroke is still rude and self-absorbed. Mathieu Amalric’s superb portrayal helps us empathise and feel for him even though we don’t exactly like him – which is how it should be.
It’s a demanding film. Aside from the harrowing nature of feeling that we’re also trapped in this locked off world, the use of an alphabet to spell out words is repeated over and over to the point of severe annoyance. Yet you understand why it was done and realise it very likely wouldn’t work as well told any other way. Certainly it’s very effective when scenes like his heartbreaking conversation with his enfeebled father (Max Von Sydow in a stellar performance) strike like an emotional sledgehammer.
Production values are excellent all round and the assorted actresses in their various roles do commendable work. Ultimately and despite its tough subject matter, it’s a great film – one that conveys a horrible condition like never before, but rather than wallowing in it, it makes those of us without it consider our own lives and experiences in a new light. Powerful and moving.