The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) (PG-13)
Jean-Dominique, Jean-Do to his friends, has had a cerebrovascular accident. That's what the doctors tell him at the beginning of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". His brain stem has basically just stopped working and the miracle of modern medicine is keeping him alive. He is paralyzed from his head to his toes expect for his eyes. The muscles of his right eye have gone haywire and it had to be sewn shut. He is left only with his left eye. He is experiencing "locked-in syndrome" which is basically exactly what it sounds like. He can experience emotion like he always has and he feels like he should be able to communicate but he can't. Frustration is a big emotion for Jean-Do.
He has two therapists, both pretty young women who vow that they are going to help him get better. Simple things like communicating with blinking—one blink for yes, two for no—are taxing for Jean-Do. He can't even move his tongue and it takes a long time for him to even be able to move his head the slightest bit.
From the beginning of the movie, we are inside Jean-Do's eyes. We see what he can see and his voice is in our ears. It's a daring move to have a movie shot in a true first-person narration, but the majority of the film is shot this way. It presents another aspect to film making that has not been explored in the depth that "Diving Bell" brings. The opening scenes are really masterpieces for the ingenuity that went in to making them. As seeing through his eyes, the screen becomes red when his eyes are closed and he's looking into light, much like how it is looking at the sun through closed lids. When he blinks, the screen goes black for a second. It's really simple yet breathtakingly effective.
Julian Schnabel directed this film and it's no surprise how he suddenly got launched into the critic's world. This movie is spectacular. The script is so surprisingly poetic and realistic that it hurts sometimes to hear the simply stated lines that carry such deep emotion. They don't try to oversell the nuances of the film, those come naturally as they should. For the first portion of the movie, as previously stated, we are inside Jean-Do's mind. It's after a little while that we leave his head, but we return to it again and again throughout the course of the film.
Jean-Do's speech therapist, Henriette, concocts a way for him to communicate. Reading an alphabet, rearranged so that the most common letters are first, she helps him spell out words and then sentences by having him blink every time she comes to the right letter. Letter by letter, symbol by symbol, they spell out sentences, and now he can communicate.
Jean-Do was a fashion editor, but now he feels like nothing. A particularly beautiful line is given to only the viewer as Jean-Do talks about his feelings: "Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory." But putting aside his self-pitying spirit, he decides to write a book. Yes, that's right, a book. With the help of a very patient assistant, he spells his way through millions of letters in an attempt to pen a novel.
While this movie is intense, particularly in the first few scenes, it's rapturously beautiful as well. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is the best I've seen in quite a while. It flits and floats here and there but also provides a feeling a immobility. The opening scene generates claustrophobia that is more than a little uncomfortable.
Matheiu Amalric plays Jean-Do which is something of a courageous role, because of how thankless it really is. He is perfect for the role, conveying so much emotion in his eyes, without even moving his face. Max von Sydow is also very good in a supporting role.
The impact of "The Diving Bell and Butterfly" is quite powerful. It's a masterpiece of cinema. It's quite a triumph of a film that could have gone awry in so many places, but it doesn't. It holds it own.
Stunning, imaginative, and poignant.
Score: 4 out or 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones