The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) Review
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Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of French Elle, was contracted to write a book about female revenge. However, at age 43, his life took a tragic turn, which led him to “write” another book—completely in his head. The film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) is based on his experiences following a massive stroke that left him completely paralyzed, except for the movement of one eye.

Jean-Do suffered from “locked-in syndrome,” in which he was plagued by almost complete paralysis, except that he was totally aware of his surroundings and could think clearly. His only form of communication was to blink one eye—one blink translated to “yes,” while two blinks meant “no.” To help him write his memoirs, Jean-Do’s ghostwriter, Claude (Anne Consigny), would recite a letter of the alphabet, and he would blink when she came to the letter that he wanted to use. This laborious process was also how those close to him learned to communicate with him.

The stroke took everything from Jean-Do, except for his memory and his imagination. While being fed intravenously, he imagined that he was dining at a fine restaurant—and, in the film, viewers see into his imagination. We see the sumptuous food displayed and the luscious wine leisurely consumed—because we, the audience, experience the film mostly though Jean-Do’s eye. We’re also privy to his thoughts and his cynical perspective, which gives us an advantage over those around him.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which is in French with English subtitles) has won several awards—including two Golden Globes, for best director and best foreign language film, and both the best director and the Technical Grand Prize awards at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Still, I can’t say that this film is “enjoyable”—though that’s rather obvious, considering the grim subject matter. However, I do recommend the cinematographic experience, as the effects created by lighting and camera are the chief vehicles for conveying Jean-Do’s dismal present, as well as his scenic past. And Mathieu Amalric adds to that as he convincingly portrays a once strong, but now helpless, Jean-Do.

What I found disappointing about the film, though, was that it just scratches the surface of Jean-Do’s character. Yes, we learn that he was a womanizer, and, yes, he does go through some self-evaluation. We also learn a bit about him through conversations with his father, Papinou (Max von Sydow). However, had the film revealed more depth in these flashbacks, we would have actually gotten to know Jean-Do—the man and his ethics. Yet our feelings for Jean-Do may be irrelevant, as we still cannot help but feel his anguish.

Through outstanding performances and exceptional cinematography, director Julian Schnabel convincingly delves into our deepest fears and forces us to question whether this is life or just mere existence. So although the lack of character development makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly short of a masterpiece, I would still recommend this film.

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