Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Julian Schnabel

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Olatz López Garmendia, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands, Isaach De Bankolé, Max von Sydow

MPAA Rating:  (for nudity, sexual content and some language)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 11/30/07 (limited); 12/21/07 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) is a grueling experience in the best sense. It is about a man trapped in his body, and Julian Schnabel's telling of the story is ingenious. His camera acts as his hero's eyes and, soon after, he awakens from a coma, only one of them. It is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was famous in France as the editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke at the age of 43, and woke up 20 days later with Locked-In syndrome. It is as terrible as it sounds.

A patient with the condition is fully awake and aware of his surroundings but cannot move. Damage to the brain stem causes complete paralysis of voluntary muscles. Bauby could not talk.  He could not move his arms—let alone his fingers—but he could blink. He could think. With those last two vestiges of the man he once had been and yet still was, he wrote a book. The film is an adaptation of his memoir and captures the frustration of the syndrome with his words, heard in echoic voice-overs. We see what Bauby sees; we are trapped along with him.

When Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) first awakes, he sees orderlies. When they see him wake up, they immediately call in Dr. Cocheton (Gérard Watkins). The doctor tells Bauby he has been in a coma for three weeks after having a stroke. We hear Bauby's voice. When the doctor asks him for his name, Bauby tells him, but the doctor cannot hear. We realize we are only hearing Bauby's thoughts; he cannot speak. A neurologist Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) tells him he is paralyzed from head to toe. His right eye, too, has been damaged. It is sewn up, which we see from his perspective as well.

There will be a pleasant surprise, soon, as two angels will be coming to visit him. They are Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), a speech therapist, and Marie (Olatz López Garmendia), a physical therapist. "Two beauties and I'm stuck," Bauby's mind laments. They will aid him in recovery, although Bauby is skeptical of any kind of recovery. He is good for a wheelchair, the doctors decide, and as he is rolled past a reflective surface, he comments, "It looks like I came from a vat of formaldehyde."

He has visitors. Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), his ex-wife and mother of his son and daughter, comes. He can only answer yes or no questions by blinking once for "yes" and twice for "no." Two blinks. He doesn't want his children to see him like this. A friend of his Laurent (Isaach De Bankolé) visits but cannot follow the rules to talk to him. He wanders out of Bauby's sightline, and when it comes to the means of actually conversing with Bauby, Laurent only provokes more frustration from Bauby. The reason is the method in which Bauby can speak.

Henriette tries to teach him to swallow (While watching her tongue move, Bauby thinks, "This isn't fair."), but while she sees progress, he doubts it. With his mouth unable to form words now and in the foreseeable future, she brings in a chart with the alphabet listed in the order of frequency in which the letters are used. When she says the letter he needs to form a word, he blinks. When he wants to start a new word, he blinks twice, "Like the spacebar on a typewriter," she says. Bauby's frustration is obvious; something so rudimentary and natural for him before has become a challenge of concentration and collaboration.

It took about 200,000 blinks at a rate of two-words-per-minute to for Bauby to write the 144 pages of his memoir, and the transformation of a man from complete despair to a need to write his struggle and find meaning in a life trapped in his brain is the film's journey. The first phrase he blinks out for Henriette is "I want death," and the usually optimistic Henriette replies, "How dare you." She apologies, but her fury and the kindness she reminds Bauby that people have shown him makes him decide to stop pitying himself. "Other than my eye," he says, "two things aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory." He begins to use these, and Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (whose work while seeing through Bauby's eye is simply tremendous is in its detail and craft) takes us outside of Babuy more often.

He imagines his condition as being in a diving suit; he allows his mind to wander to wherever it wants to go in the form of a butterfly. The butterfly roams the terrain and eventually ends up in a book publisher's office, where Henriette announces to the publisher over the phone for Bauby that he wants to write a book. Enter Claude (Anne Consigny), who will make the enormous effort to take Bauby's optical dictation.

The film is evocative in Schnabel's presentation of Bauby's condition, and while it is impossible to conceive of the level of frustration that Bauby felt and the strength it took to overcome it, the power of Schnabel's film is that he provokes us to try to imagine them. It is inspiring and affecting not because of the circumstances but because Schnabel, Kaminski, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood offer us a window into Bauby's mind and allow us to experience the same kind of escape from it as Bauby, in his own way, finds.

We see Bauby on the beach with Céline and his children. We see his son crying in his mother's arms after having to wipe the drool from the side of his father's mouth. "Even a shadow of a dad is still a dad," Bauby considers. He grieves not being able to ruffle his children's hair but rejoices simply "to see them live." Bauby's own father (Max von Sydow in a great cameo) gives his son a phone call in a wrenching scene; for medical reasons, both men are unable to visit the other. This will do, but it is not enough.

A lot of movies aspire to incite inspiration off of real stories, assuming the words "Based on a true story" are sufficient. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, through Bauby's words and Schnabel's inventive and impeccable craft, tells the story of a life interrupted and continued to the best of its ability. It is inspiring, yes, but it is also deeply sad, perceptive, and contemplative.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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