Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (aka Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Schnabel, 2007) So what do you expect from a movie based on the story of a man so disabled that he could only communicate by blinking an eye, and who manages to write a book about his experience as a sufferer of 'locked-in syndrome'? You would probably expect to be moved, to feel both pity and admiration for the subject of the movie and to learn of the frustration that you anticipate he must feel. Welcome to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: unsentimental, funny and often brutally honest.

Dr. Lepage: We want you to take it easy for a few days.
Jean-Dominique Bauby: What do you think I'm doing now?

The beginning of the movie is a stunning tour-de-force, especially Janusz Kaminksi's use of point-of-view camera work, taking us inside what Schnabel imagines it must be like to awake from a coma to find your mind is fully functioning but your body isn't. We see and hear what Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) is experiencing as he struggles to understand what has happened to him.

Jean-Dominique Bauby: I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.

We watch his tortuous escape from the diving bell of his isolation through the patient work of his speech therapist, Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) his physical therapist, Maria Lopez (Olatz López Garmendia aka Mrs Schnabel) and finally publisher's assistant Claude (Anne Consigny), as he finally frees his imagination to take flight as a butterfly.

Papinou Bauby: "Having a mistress is no excuse for leaving the mother of your children; the world has lost its values."

Because it is evident from his memories and what we can piece together about him that he was a social butterfly - a man devoted to a selfish life for which he is never apologetic. He abandoned the mother of his children, and even when she returns to care for him, he does not treat her any differently just because he is now utterly dependent. Yet, we also see the positive in him not least in the tender relationship he has with his father (played by Max von Sydow) and with his three children. The movie is equally uncompromising with those that seek to help Bauby. We see the doctors as compassionate but clinical just as we see some of his carers as well-meaning but bumbling.

It would have been easy for Schnabel to have succumbed to a more clichéd film of the indomitable rise of the human spirit. Instead he shows us a more nuanced and balanced portrait that recognizes both strengths and weaknesses.

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