IMDB #212 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Today we turn our eye to a French film, 2007's Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When I say "French," I mean it's in Frenchman and about a Frenchman, though it was directed by an American (and thus ineligible for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, much like Clint Eastwoods Letters From Iwo Jima).

Sorry for the late posting on this one, but it's the sort of film that makes things like blogging seem a little less transcedent than normal, so this write-up was harder to start than most. This is the type of (true) story that leaves me with the impulse to hug my mom, kiss my girlfriend, high five strangers, write novels, hit home runs, and traverse countries.

This is a movie about what it means to be alive.

The Key Players:

Julian Schnabel, a Brooklyn-born painter in the Neo-Expressionist movement, is also the director of the biopics Basquiat and Before Night Falls. He's proved to be an auteur of unique vision, in addition to being a brash loudmouth with a penchant for self-aggrandizement.

Matthieu Almaric, our star, has been in a whole bunch of French films that I know nothing about (he has three Cesar awards), and last year was the bad guy in Quantum of Solace.

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood won an Oscar penning The Pianist (someone tell me how that film wins director, actor, screenplay but nor picture) is arguably the real innovator behind the film, coming up with a way to turn a very slim book into a rich and seemingly epic film.

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The Story:

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Almaric), 42, editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, begins the film in a hospital bed, in the confused and bleary aftermath of a major stroke. We begin the film with him, seeing from his eyes as he blinks the doctors and nurses into focus.

A doctor, standing uncomfortably close to the camera, explains what has happened, and asks Bauby to say his name. Although we can hear Bauby's confused inner voice, he is unable to speak- or move anything beyond his left eyelid.

Shortly afterward he witnesses, but is unable to protest as his right eye is stitched closed (since it can't close on its own). Another doctor then lays out the facts: he now has what's known as "locked-in syndrome," a very rare condition in which the body shuts down nearly completely, but the mind remains completely intact. Bauby can blink his left eye, and move his neck very slightly, but is otherwise paralyzed.

Bauby is trapped in his own body. The doctor tells him "two beauties" will arrive to help him, and soon Bauby meets Marie, a physical therapist who will help him try to regain the ability to swallow, and Henriette, a speech therapist who will help him communicate.

Henriette shows him a system whereby she reads him the letters of the alphabet (in order of most frequent use, E R A N I and so on), and he blinks when she reaches the right one. In this way, Bauby can painstakingly write sentences and whole thoughts, instead of just answering yes or no questions (by blinking once for yes and twice for no).

Bauby's first message via this system is "I want to die," to Henriette's dismay (and stern reprimand). The next day, however, he decides to stop pitying himself and thanks her for her help.

Bauby employs Henriette to call a publisher, with whom he had a book contract before his stroke (intending to modernize The Count Of Monte Cristo), and she tells them he intends to fufill the contract and write a book, now a memoir. He will, however, need someone very patient to take dictation, so the publisher sends a young assistant named Claudine.

The film then passes the time idly, like Bauby, detailing the writing of the memoir that became this movie, and his encounters with his friends, his three children and their mother Celestine (whom he never married), and the abscence of his father (who is 92 and too ill to visit him) and his current girlfriend (who can't bear to see him this way).

The Artistry:

In the course of my film studies minor, I learned of a process referred to as "suture," wherein the filmmakers employ common tricks to convince your brain that you are witnessing reality on the screen, not something pretend.

One of the most frequent devices by which they do this is the shot/reverse shot technique. They show you a view out of a window, then they immediately cut to a character looking out of that window- we immediately make the connection that we were just seeing that character's perspective (instead of, you know, the camera that took that first shot).

So believe me when I say that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is unusual because nearly the entire first half is the view from Bauby's perspective, without any corresponding view of him in a hospital bed. At 27 minutes into the film, we see a very brief flashback of Bauby in his life as a fashion editor, and not until 40 minutes do we spend any significant time outside of the bed (when Henriette places the call to the publisher, which we view from in front of the two of them).

The film takes his confinement and makes it as literal as it can, so we can feel the freedom when Bauby lets his imagination free him, lyrically relating to us passages from his book (which he composes, all in his head, in the three hours after he wakes up before Claudine begins taking dictation).

In fact, there are probably nearly as many shots of an underwater diving suit (the "diving bell" in which Bauby is trapped- his imagination is the butterfly) as there are of Bauby for a great while.

Visually, lauded cinematographer Janusz Kaminski treats us to much refocusing and shuttering of the lens in the early going, and creative use of stock footage and superimposed images to illustrate his flights of fancy later. Bauby kisses the wife of Napoleon (the patron of the hospital, once upon a time), sees acrobats in the halls, and attends a sumptuous feast with Claudine.

Harwood only breaks up his screenplay with three flashbacks: a scene where Bauby shaves his ailing father, a visit to Lourdes with his girlfriend, and near the film's end the moments right before his stroke.

I especially enjoyed the way the Lourdes visit, where his girlfriend insists on buying a bust of the Madonna and Bauby is made uncomfortable by cripples seeking miracles, underscores Bauby's indifference to religion. The real life Bauby was wryly cynical about religion, and included in the film is most of a chapter on how he's not of faith, but he'll take all the prayers he can get.

All this is accompanied lightly on the piano by composer Paul Cantelon's twinkling score, neither too sparse nor too mawkish, and well placed soundtrack selections.


Bauby's book gets rave reviews, just as Bauby comes down with pnemonia- he sees some familiar landmarks as an ambulance takes him back to Paris for the first time. He dies in a hospital ten days after the publication of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Considering how much I feel like burning dvds of Juno and Michael Clayton every time I watch this (for, while decent films, there's no way they deserved Best Picture nominations instead), I'm going with higher.

The Legacy:

It's only been a short while, but given the four Oscar nominations (including Director and Screenplay but not picture wtf?) and multiple other awards, it's a safe bet for a long shelf-life.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Father's Day on the beach- this was filmed at the real beach near the hospital where Bauby lived. The tide recedes five hundred feet and comes back in and it couldn't be more cinematic.

Leftover Thoughts:

-It took Bauby ten months of blinking five hours a day to write his (albiet slim) book. What have you done with yourself this year?

-The soundtrack choices are nearly all American and not French, but they work really well, from Tom Waits at the beach to Joe Strummer over the closing credits.

-Controversy: Bauby's friends say the mother of Bauby's children skewed the film by over-emphasizing her role and making up entirely that his then-present girlfriend didn't visit.

Coming Up...

Tuesday, September 1st 8th: The Conversation

Thursday, September 3rd 10th: Ed Wood

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