I’d heard of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly even before it was released; back then, Johnny Depp was to star, and the film was to be made in English. The film ultimately ended up being made in the original author’s native French, a decision made by director Julian Schnabel to better capture the spirit of the novel the film was based on. That it is in French instead of English, and stars a French actor that is all but unknown in America by name, should do little to dissuade you from seeing this; all the decisions made were in benefit of the film, and I honestly believe that the film could not have been done any better than how it ended up being done.
Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes up in a hospital bed after suffering a massive stroke, only to find that he cannot move his body or even speak, though he hears himself speak in his mind. The doctors later tell him he now suffers from what they call “locked-in syndrome”, where his body is completely paralyzed, but his brain function is unimpaired; Bauby likens the experience to being stuck underwater in an old-fashioned diving suit, the scaphandre of the French title. Reduced to communicating only by blinking his left eyelid (his right having been sewn shut to prevent infection), he soon comes to terms with his new life, and decides to write a book about the experience, laboriously blinking out each letter to each word to spell out everything he wants to say. This film adaptation of the book opts to put viewers directly into Bauby’s experiences, opening literally inside his head as he awakens from his coma, his eyes trying to adjust to the light and the room he is in, and the people who scurry around him to check his vitals. From then on, we spend probably the entire first third of the film in Bauby’s mind, hearing his thoughts and seeing only what he sees, exactly how he sees it. It’s an incredibly potent decision, and Schnabel makes it work beautifully by opting for pure authenticity in his replications of what it is like to be trapped within your own body. It’s a good ways into the film before we see Bauby from the outside, and even then such sequences are few and far between; it is mostly experiencing what Bauby experiences, right down to the memories he indulges in for a complete lack of anything else to do. I can definitely see how Schnabel won Best Director at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nom; to pitch this film the way it ended up must have been an absolute laugh riot for the producers – that’s how brave and ballsy the film was, but it’s squarely thanks to Schnabel (and his artistic background) and Mathieu Amalric as Bauby that the film not only works as well as it does, but comes off as entertaining as it does as well.
It was probably mostly thanks to my prior knowledge of the film that, when I saw this one had made the list, I was especially looking forward to it. Whatever reason, I’m glad the film lived up to my expectations. It was very good, and exceedingly well done, but that’d be about the extent of what I would say about it to others. It’s not oh-my-god amazing or life-changing, but it is highly entertaining, and a great window into a man’s soul during a period of turmoil and trial. I’d say to go see this one if you ever get the chance, and if it especially interests you, to actively seek it out and watch it. There’s few films quite like it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10